World News

Europe at odds over Israeli land offensive in Gaza

PARIS (Reuters) - France condemned an Israeli land assault in the Gaza Strip on Saturday just hours after the Czech presidency of the European Union said the action was “defensive, not offensive.”

The conflicting statements suggested disunity among European partners ahead of separate visits to the region by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and an EU delegation led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

France, which handed the EU presidency to the Czechs on January 1, has led calls for a cease-fire and hosted a meeting of EU foreign minsters to reinforce the message on Tuesday.

Israeli troops clashed with Hamas forces on Saturday as columns of tanks backed by helicopters advanced into Gaza under darkness, a Palestinian witness said.

In Prague, Czech EU presidency spokesman Jiri Potuznik said Israel, which launched air bombardments against Gaza a week ago in retaliation against rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled area, appeared to be acting defensively.

“At the moment, from the perspective of the last days, we understand this step as a defensive, not offensive, action,” he said.

Saeb Erekat, aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called for the world to condemn the Czech position.

“This is a vicious aggression against our people. The international community cannot stand silent ... This position (by the European Union’s Czech presidency) deserves condemnation,” told Al Arabiya television.

The French Foreign Ministry said: “France condemns the Israeli ground offensive against Gaza as it condemns the continuation of rocket firing.”

It said the “dangerous military escalation” complicated efforts to end the fighting and bring aid to the area.

Further underlining the impression of European division, a British government source said of the Czech statement: “It is not the position of the British government.”

In London, British Foreign Minister David Miliband urged both Israel and Hamas to agree to stop hostilities.

“Unfolding events show the urgent need for the immediate cease-fire that we have called for. The escalation of the conflict will cause alarm and dismay,” he said in a statement.

Israeli troops and tanks had been massed on the border for days in readiness for an invasion as Israeli firepower pounded Gaza from land, sea and air and diplomatic efforts to arrange a cease-fire stalled.

(Additional reporting by Jason Hovet in Prague and Adrian Croft in London)

Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Elizabeth Piper