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Czechs, next EU president, defend Israeli strikes

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech Republic, which takes over the European Union’s presidency on January 1, defended Israel’s strikes against Hamas on Tuesday.

The EU has called for a cease-fire to end the violence that has killed almost 350 Palestinians. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said Israel had the right to defend itself.

“Let us realise one thing: Hamas increased steeply the number of rockets fired at Israel since the cease-fire ended on December 19. That is not acceptable any more,” Schwarzenberg told daily Mlada Fronta Dnes in an interview.

France, which will hand over the EU’s rotating presidency to Prague, has condemned Israel’s strikes and the rocket attacks from Hamas militants and called for both to stop immediately.

It also said it deplored the many civilian casualties and condemned Israel’s “disproportionate use of force,” echoing comments from U.N. Secretary-General Bank Ki-moon, who has also called for a cease-fire.

Schwarzenberg, a staunch ally of Washington, said Hamas had excluded itself from serious political debate due to its rocket attacks on Israel. He also indirectly blamed the group for the growing death toll, saying it put its bases and gun warehouses in densely populated areas.

“Why am I one of the few that have expressed understanding for Israel? ... I am enjoying the luxury of telling the truth,” Schwarzenberg told the daily.

He said under the Czech EU presidency he would try to push through a policy that would lead to peace, saying “I would be very happy if it helped the Palestinians.”

He said he would not support either side in the conflict but rather work as a mediator. The paper cited his office as saying he would take part in an extraordinary of EU foreign ministers in Paris on Tuesday evening to discuss the attacks.

Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006 and then took over the coastal strip in 2007 after routing rival Fatah forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.

Reporting by Jana Mlcochova; editing by Keith Weir