CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - The United States on Monday firmly backed Israeli strikes on Gaza in pursuit of Hamas targets and demanded the Palestinian Islamist group stop firing rockets and agree to a lasting ceasefire.
With a foreign policy crisis brewing three weeks before President-elect Barack Obama takes office, the United States pointedly did not call for Israel to stop air strikes that have killed more than 300 Palestinians in Hamas-controlled Gaza over three days.
“The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters.
Washington accuses Hamas of provoking Israel by declaring a 6-month-old truce dead on December 19 and firing rockets.
“Hamas has once again shown its true colors as a terrorist organization that refuses to even recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Johndroe said.
“In order for the violence to stop, Hamas must stop firing rockets into Israel and agree to respect a sustainable and durable ceasefire,” he said.
President George W. Bush, who is on vacation at his Texas ranch, has made no public comment since the Israeli air strikes began on Saturday.
Bush, who had once hoped to have an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the time he left office, will hand over to Obama the rising tensions in the Middle East along with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a U.S. economy in recession.
Obama, who is in Hawaii on vacation and takes office on January 20, has also made no public comment on the Gaza conflict but has been briefed by Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
Bush spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Monday and told him that the United States wanted to see an end to the violence but in a lasting way, not to have it stop for a while and then restart, Johndroe said.
Bush spoke with Saudi King Abdullah over the weekend, and Rice has been in contact with her counterparts in Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia about a ceasefire. Neither Rice nor Bush has been in contact with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“We are encouraging all of the nations in the region to take an active part in rebuilding the ceasefire so that we can return to the relative calm that was enjoyed in the region over the past six months,” State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said.
The Israeli attacks were the deadliest violence in the territory for decades and Palestinian medical officials put the Gaza death toll at 325.
The White House showed no signs of preparing to call for restraint by Israel, echoing the position it took when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006 in an unsuccessful attempt to disarm Hezbollah.
At that time the United States opposed a ceasefire for weeks, saying it must be on terms that would last. After more than 30 days, Israel accepted a ceasefire that fell short of Israeli and U.S. expectations.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller