With Middle East tensions rising as Israel launched a major offensive against Palestinian militants, President Obama appealed Wednesday to Israel's prime minister to avoid civilian casualties and asked Egypt's president for help in calming the situation.
The White House said Wednesday night that Mr. Obama reiterated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. supports "Israel's right to self-defense in light of the barrage of rocket attacks being launched from Gaza against Israeli civilians."
"The president urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties," the White House said. "The two agreed that Hamas needs to stop its attacks on Israel to allow the situation to de-escalate."
An Israeli air strike Wednesday killed the military commander of Hamas; the Islamist group warned that an Israeli invasion of Gaza would "open the gates of hell." The attack dashed hopes that a truce mediated Tuesday by Egypt could pull the two sides back from the brink of war after five days of escalating Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes at militant targets.
Operation "Pillar of Defense" began with a surgical strike on a car carrying Ahmed Al-Jaabari, commander of the military wing of Hamas, the Iranian-armed Islamist movement which controls Gaza and dominates a score of smaller armed groups.
Within minutes of the death of Al-Jaabari, big explosions shook Gaza as the Israeli air force struck at selected targets just before sundown, blasting plumes of smoke and debris high above the crowded city. Army tanks shelled border areas of Gaza in south and the Israeli navy shelled a Hamas security position from the sea.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu agreed to stay in close touch in the coming days, the White House said. Earlier Wednesday, Vice President Joseph R. Biden received a briefing from Mr. Netanyahu on the events in Gaza.
The president also spoke with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi about "Egypt's central role in preserving regional security," the White House said. In their conversation, Mr. Obama condemned the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and reiterated Israel's right to self-defense.
"The two leaders agreed on the importance of working to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible and agreed to stay in close touch in the days ahead," said the statement from the White House.
• This article is based in part on wire reports.
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