Clinton says Israel has right to defend itself

Tue Jan 27, 2009 11:46am EST

(Adds details, more quotes)

WASHINGTON, Jan 27 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that Israel had a right to defend itself and that Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza on the Jewish state could not go unanswered.

Clinton spoke as a fragile ceasefire ruptured between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza on the same day as President Barack Obama's special envoy George Mitchell arrived in the region to try and shore up the truce.

"We support Israel's right to self-defense. The (Palestinian) rocket barrages which are getting closer and closer to populated areas (in Israel) cannot go unanswered," Clinton said in her first news conference at the State Department.

The top U.S. diplomat, whose comments may be seen by some as giving Israel a green light to once again pound Gaza, accused Hamas of "offensive" action against the Israeli Defense Forces on the border.

"It is regrettable that the Hamas leadership apparently believes that it is in their interest to provoke the right of self-defense instead of building a better future for the people of Gaza," said Clinton.

An Israeli soldier was killed by a bomb on the border with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday. Israeli troops later killed a Palestinian, raising fears of renewed conflict after a 10-day truce that followed Israel's three-week ground and air offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Clinton said the short-term U.S. objective was to get a durable ceasefire, adding that the Obama administration was concerned about civilian casualties on both sides and the humanitarian suffering.

Asked about the humanitarian plight of Palestinians in Gaza, Clinton said the United States was looking to increase assistance there but did not indicate how much more funding was available or when the aid would be delivered.

"The United States is currently the single largest contributor to Palestinian aid and we will be adding even more because we believe that it's important to help those who have been damaged and are suffering," she said. (Reporting by Sue Pleming; Editing by Vicki Allen)