December 27, 2008 / 3:56 PM / 11 years ago

U.S. urges Israel avoid civilian casualties in Gaza

CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - The United States on Saturday urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties in air strikes on Gaza but did not call for an end to the attacks in pursuit of Hamas targets that Palestinian officials said killed at least 195 people.

The White House put responsibility for ending the violence on the conduct of Hamas, the Palestinian group which controls the Gaza Strip and which the United States considers a terrorist organization.

Israeli warplanes and combat helicopters pounded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Israeli defense minister said the operation would not be short.

It was the bloodiest day for Palestinians in more than 20 years, and Palestinian militants responded with rocket fire that killed an Israeli, medics said. Palestinian health officials said at least 195 people were killed.

“Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Texas where President George W. Bush is on vacation at his ranch.

“Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people,” Johndroe said. “The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza.”

The Bush administration has typically taken the position that Israel has the right to defend itself. The United States is Israel’s strongest ally.

European Union president France said it condemned the Israeli bombardments and the rocket attacks from Gaza and called for both to stop immediately.

The presidency said in a statement it also deplores the many civilian casualties and “condemns the disproportionate use of force.”

PEACE PROCESS STALLED

Bush had hoped to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before leaving office and in November 2007 hosted a conference at Annapolis, Maryland, to relaunch talks aimed at reaching agreement on a Palestinian state by the end of this year.

But the Annapolis process stalled and all sides acknowledged that there was no chance for a peace deal before Bush leaves the White House on January 20 when Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the new president.

Obama, who visited Israel and the occupied West Bank in July, pledged at the time — in an apparent jab at Bush’s last-minute efforts to secure peace — not to “wait a few years into my term or my second term if I’m elected” to press for a deal.

There was no immediate comment on the Israeli air strikes on Gaza from Obama, who is vacationing with his family in Hawaii, or his staff.

Lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace has eluded efforts by many U.S. presidents and calming tensions in that region is another issue that the new Obama administration will have to grapple with when it takes over next month along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a crumbling global economy.

The United States regards Hamas as a terrorist organization and has worked to isolate the Islamist group since it won a Palestinian parliamentary election in January 2006.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned as “criminal” the Israeli air campaign and called for the international community to intervene.

The air strikes followed a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security cabinet to widen reprisals for cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Eric Beech

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