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Biden returns to White House as Israel braces for Iran response

Patrick Sykes and Arsalan Shahla, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

President Joe Biden is heading back to the White House to consult with his national security team about the Middle East as Israel restricted public life in preparation for a possible attack by Iran or its proxies.

Israel and its allies, led by the United States, are bracing for an Iranian response to a suspected Israeli attack on Iran’s embassy in Syria on April 1. Iran said Saturday its forces seized an Israel-linked container ship near the Strait of Hormuz.

Biden, who was cutting short a weekend at his private residence in Delaware to return to Washington, has expressed full U.S. backing for Israel’s defense — a pledge reiterated by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday.

While Israelis tried to go about their daily lives, officials stepped up preparations for a possible attack, including military measures and restrictions on public gatherings. The Home Front Command said it ordered a halt to educational activities for two days beginning Saturday night and limited gatherings to 1,000 people, or fewer in some areas.

“In recent days we have strengthened our defensive and offensive array and we are determined to take any measures required to defend” Israel’s citizens, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a statement Saturday. That includes adding capabilities on land, in the air, at sea and in intelligence within Israel and in partnership with the U.S., he said.

Speculation about a weekend attack on Israel has mounted as Biden said Friday he expected Iranian retaliation “sooner rather than later.” Potential scenarios included an unprecedented drone and missile strike on Israeli territory, Bloomberg reported. Tehran signaled to Western countries that it would retaliate in a “calibrated” manner to avoid an all-out regional conflict, the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times reported.

 

Restrictions for the sake of Israelis’ safety include a halt to day camps and trips by educational institutions, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters. While Israel’s air force has “dozens of planes in the skies — prepared and ready,” air defense “is not hermetic” and people need to act responsibly and calmly, he said.

Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency said special forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boarded the MSC Aries from a helicopter and directed it toward Iranian territorial waters. IRNA gave no reason for the seizure. The ship’s beneficial owner is Zodiac Maritime Ltd., part of Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The U.K.’s Joint Maritime Information Center said it’s likely the ship was targeted for its perceived Israeli affiliation. IRNA didn’t give a reason for the seizure.

The vessel most recently stopped at Khalifa Port in the United Arab Emirates, according to ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg. Calls for its immediate release came from the White House and Portugal, the ship’s flag country.

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