US blames Hamas for cease-fire break
The United States today blamed the Islamist group Hamas for breaking a cease-fire and urged the Jewish state to avoid civilian casualties after Israeli air strikes killed more than 200 people in Gaza.
The United States put responsibility for ending the violence on the Palestinian group which controls the Gaza Strip and which Washington considers a terrorist organisation.
Israeli warplanes and combat helicopters pounded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in a campaign that Israeli officials said may last a long time.
President George W. Bush, on vacation at his Texas ranch, spoke with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the Middle East situation and she issued a statement blaming Hamas for the escalation in tensions.
"The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza," Rice said.
"The cease-fire should be restored immediately," she said. "The United States calls on all concerned to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the innocent people of Gaza."
At least 205 people were killed in Gaza in the bloodiest one-day death toll in 60 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Militants in the Gaza Strip, who have launched dozens of rocket attacks against Israel since a truce expired just over a week ago, fired more salvoes that killed one Israeli man.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Hamas must cease rocket attacks into Israel for the violence to stop.
"Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people," Johndroe said. "The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza."
The Bush administration has typically taken the position that Israel has the right to defend itself. The United States is Israel's strongest ally.
Bush had hoped to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before leaving office and in November 2007 hosted a conference at Annapolis, Maryland, to relaunch talks aimed at reaching agreement on a Palestinian state by the end of this year.
But the Annapolis process stalled and all sides acknowledged that there was no chance for a peace deal before the Republican president leaves the White House on January 20 when Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the new president.
Democrat Obama visited Israel and the occupied West Bank in July. In an apparent jab at Bush's last-minute efforts to secure peace, Obama pledged at the time not to "wait a few years into my term or my second term if I'm elected" to press for a deal.
There was no immediate comment on the Israeli air strikes from Obama, who is vacationing with his family in Hawaii, or his staff.
Lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace has eluded efforts by many US presidents and calming tensions in that region is another issue that the new Obama administration will have to grapple with when it takes over next month, along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a crumbling global economy.
The United States regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation and has worked to isolate the Islamist group since it won a Palestinian parliamentary election in January 2006.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned as "criminal" the Israeli air campaign and called for the international community to intervene.
The air strikes followed a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's security cabinet to widen reprisals for cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel.