Israel has right to protect itself - U.S. president

Israel has right to protect itself -   U.S. president

President George W. Bush, in his first public reaction to Israel's ground invasion of Gaza, said Monday that the Jewish state was justified in protecting itself against Hamas militants.

"I understand Israel's desire to protect itself," Bush said in the Oval Office. "The situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas."

Israel over the weekend began moving tanks and troops into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip after a week of punishing aerial bombing of Hamas targets, which has caused civilian casualties and drawn widespread condemnation in the Muslim and Arab world. By moving ground forces into Gaza, Israel has raised the risk of escalating the latest Mideast conflict into urban warfare, which would surely increase the casualties and consequences for the region, reported AP .

Bush, however, laid the blame squarely on Hamas, which the United States labels a terrorist organization.

"Instead of caring about the people of Gaza, Hamas decided to use Gaza to launch rockets to kill innocent Israelis," Bush said. " Israel's obviously decided to protect herself and her people."

At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was pressing three elements of a potential cease-fire, including a halt to Hamas' rocket firing into Israel.

The cease-fire proposal also would include an arrangement for reopening crossing points on the border with Israel, McCormack said. The third element would address the tunnels into Gaza from Egypt through which Hamas has smuggled materials and arms.

Rice held telephone conversations over the weekend with 17 foreign leaders - in Europe as well as the Middle East - in pursuit of such a cease-fire agreement, McCormack said, adding that much detailed work remains to be done.

"We're doing a lot of work on these three elements. The secretary is trying to get the international system and various actors in the international system to coalesce around those three elements," McCormack said.

Bush made his comments about the Gaza conflict in the Oval Office after meeting with the Salva Kiir, the leader of Sudan's troubled South. With Kiir sitting next to him, Bush spoke to reporters about Sudan and then offered his Gaza comments unsolicited. He took no questions.

Bush said he is still hopeful there will be a cease-fire, which he described as a noble ambition. But he said no peace deal would work unless it forces Hamas to stop its attacks.

Bush also expressed U.S. concern about the grave humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where people have lived under hard and diminishing conditions and Israeli bombardment. The president blamed Hamas for causing the woes in Gaza.

Bush said violence must be stopped, "but not at the expense of an agreement that does not prevent the crisis from happening again."

In his weekly radio address, released last Friday before the Israeli ground invasion, Bush called the Hamas rocket attacks an "act of terror."

In his comments at the State Department, McCormack only described briefly the three elements of a potential cease-fire deal being pursued by Rice.

McCormack said arrangements to reopen the border crossings could be worked out on the basis of a 2005 "movement and access" accord that has not been fully implemented by the Israelis and Palestinians. He said some additional equipment and technical expertise might have to be supplied as part of such an arrangement. He offered no further details.

The State Department has withheld direct comment on the Israel ground thrust into Gaza, which began Saturday. Pressed for comment Monday, McCormack said, "Every sovereign state has to decide for itself how best to defend itself." He also reiterated the administration's concern about the conflict's impact on civilians.

The Gaza crisis prompted Rice to cancel a long-planned trip to China this week. While Rice has been making phone calls to allies to foster a cease-fire in Gaza, McCormack said Monday that she has no current plans to visit the Mideast as part of that effort.

Israel's weeklong aerial bombardment of Gaza and the start of the ground offensive Saturday against Hamas have drawn condemnation across the Muslim and Arab world and news coverage of the invasion has dominated Arab satellite television stations.

McCormack said Rice spoke to her designated successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, about the Gaza situation last week.

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