- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2008

UPDATED:

The White House on Monday strongly defended of Israel’s air strikes into the Gaza Strip, condemning civilian casualties but blaming the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

“The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, briefing reporters at President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

“Israel is going after terrorists who are firing rockets and mortars into Israel. They are taking steps that they feel are necessary to deal with the terrorist threat,” Mr. Johndroe said.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, took a nearly identical, if not more muscular, position backing the Jewish state.

“I strongly support Israel’s right to defend its citizens against rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza, which have killed and injured Israeli citizens, and to restore security to its residents,” Mr. Reid said in a statement.

“Hamas’ failure to stop these attacks only exacerbates the humanitarian situation for the residents of Gaza and undermines efforts to attain peace and security in the region.”

The Bush administration’s goal, he said, is to reach a “sustainable ceasefire” that stops the ongoing Hamas practice of firing rockets into southern Israel, and allows negotiations on a two-state solution to go forward.

Mr. Bush spoke by phone Monday morning with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. On Saturday, he spoke by phone with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke over the weekend with foreign ministers from numerous governments in the region, Mr. Johndroe said.

Ms. Rice also briefed President-elect Barack Obama on developments on Saturday. Mr. Obama has made no public statements so far on the situation.

The president’s spokesman said they wanted civilian casualties “to be avoided,” but said Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has caused many of the deaths by placing rocket launchers in heavily populated areas.

The Israeli Air Force on Monday continued their third day of air strikes into Gaza, retaliating against a resumption of rocket attacks into Israel from Hamas militants.

More than 300 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli air strikes, which they say are targeted at Hamas leaders and weaponry.

The Hamas rocket attacks last week were in violation of a ceasefire negotiated by the Egyptian government, and the White House placed the blame for the badly destabilized situation on Hamas, which took control of Gaza in June 2007.

The Hamas attacks have killed one and injured several others, and they have responded to Israel’s air assaults with promises to send suicide bombers into Israel.

“Hamas has an opportunity to be a partner in the peace process. There has been a goal laid out for them for quite some time,” Mr. Johndroe said. “Hamas instead is choosing to fire rockets into Israel.”

“Hamas has a choice to make. Right now they are choosing to be a terrorist organization that fires rockets into Israel. That is not going to lead to a sustainable ceasefire.”

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