Biden tells Netanyahu he expects 'a significant de-escalation today' with path toward cease-fire

WASHINGTON – In his most forceful statement yet on the Israel-Gaza conflict, President Joe Biden told Israel's prime minister he expects "a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire," the White House said Wednesday.

Biden has been quietly ramping up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end Israel's bombardment of Hamas targets in Gaza – amid mounting international alarm over the rising death toll and demands from Democrats in Congress for a cease-fire.

The White House said Biden and Netanyahu spoke Wednesday, and the two leaders "had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza, Israel’s progress in degrading the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist elements, and ongoing diplomatic efforts by regional governments and the United States."

Israel did not seem to be moving toward a cease-fire.

"I am determined to continue this operation until its goal is achieved," Netanyahu said in a message on Twitter after the White House released its readout of the call.

More: Israeli airstrikes kill 6, level large family home in Gaza as cease-fire efforts ramp up

The two men spoke after Israeli widened its strikes on Hamas targets, killing at least six people across the Gaza Strip and destroying the home of an extended family early Wednesday.

Until now, Biden has not given Netanyahu a timeline for Israeli’s military assault on Hamas.

Joost Hiltermann, an expert on the Middle East with the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization, said Israel may have achieved as much as it can militarily “without incurring further reputational damage and external pressure.”

The fighting began May 10, when Hamas fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a flashpoint site sacred to Jews and Muslims.

In his initial response, Biden repeatedly emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, a militant Islamic group that the United States designates a terrorist organization.

Learn more: 'Every incendiary ingredient imaginable': Here's what sparked worst Mideast violence since 2014

Pressure on Biden: Rep. Rashida Tlaib presses Joe Biden on Palestinian rights as he faces growing pressure over Mideast

The White House's rhetoric has shifted amid searing criticism from liberals in Congress urging Biden to step up the pressure on Netanyahu.

During a visit to Michigan on Tuesday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat and the only Palestinian American in Congress, challenged the president to address the plight of the Palestinians, who have borne the brunt of the casualties in the conflict.

"Palestinian human rights are not a bargaining chip and must be protected, not negotiated," Tlaib told Biden, according to her office. "The U.S. cannot continue to give the right-wing Netanyahu government billions each year to commit crimes against Palestinians."

Monday, more than two dozen Democratic senators issued a joint statement calling for an immediate cease-fire. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is staunchly pro-Israel, added her voice Tuesday.

Calling Israel “our friend and ally,” Pelosi said it is in the interest of U.S. national security to support security in Israel, but "after more than a week of hostilities, it has become even more apparent that a cease-fire is necessary. There must be a serious effort on the part of both parties to end the violence and respect the rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people.”

International mediators from Egypt and elsewhere have been frantically trying to broker a cease-fire, even as the violence escalated. The fighting – the worst since a war between Israel and Hamas in 2014 – has ignited protests around the world.

At least 219 Palestinians have been killed in airstrikes, including 63 children and 36 women, and 1,530 people have been wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians. Hamas and Islamic Jihad said at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, and Israel said the number is at least 130.

About 58,000 Palestinians have fled their homes.

Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier, have been killed in rocket attacks.

Contributing: Michael Collins, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden says he expects 'significant de-escalation today' in Gaza