U.S. wants Gaza cease-fire as soon as possible

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department said on Saturday it was working toward a ceasefire for Gaza and said it had told Israel’s government that military action must be “mindful of the potential consequences to civilians.”

The department also said Washington is “deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation” in Gaza, but said in a statement that Hamas holds the people of Gaza hostage.

“It is obvious that that ceasefire should take place as soon as possible, but we need a ceasefire that is durable, sustainable, and not time limited,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in the statement.

The United States did not directly refer to the Israeli ground invasion in its statement, and did not call for an immediate ceasefire.

Washington still squarely blamed Hamas for the violence. “Hamas has held the people of Gaza hostage ever since their illegal coup against the forces of President Mahmoud Abbas, the legitimate President of the Palestinian people,” the statement said.

McCormack said Washington was working toward a ceasefire that would not allow for a re-establishment of the status quo, “where Hamas can continue to launch rockets out of Gaza and to condemn the people of Gaza to a life of misery.”

Israel launched a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, sending tanks and infantry into battle with Hamas fighters who have defied eight days of deadly air strikes with salvos of rocket fire into Israeli towns.

“The United States is deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation and the protection of innocents,” McCormack said in the statement. “In this vein, we have expressed our concerns to the Israeli government that any military action needs to be mindful of the potential consequences to civilians.”

Israeli tanks killed seven Gazans at the onset of the night-time invasion, bringing the Palestinian death toll since December 27 to more than 450, medical officials said.

Israel said it called up tens of thousands of reservists and the military’s chief spokesman estimated the operation in the Hamas-run enclave could take “many long days.”

Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Xavier Briand