The White House, calling Monday for a lasting cease-fire in the Mideast, backed Israel’s deadly air attacks on the Gaza Strip and said the Islamic militant group ruling there had shown its "true colors as a terrorist organization." After Hamas, which controls Gaza, fired mortars and rockets deep into Israeli territory, Israel retaliated Saturday with a fierce bombing campaign — the deadliest against Palestinians in decades. The airstrikes, which have killed more than 360 people and wounded some 1,400 others, have enraged the Arab world.
"Right now the people of southern Israel are not able to live in peace," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Crawford, Texas, where President George W. Bush is spending time at his ranch. "They have to live in bomb shelters a lot of the time. And that’s unacceptable."
In Israel, 17 people have been killed in attacks from Gaza since the beginning of the year.
A six-month truce between Hamas and Israel expired earlier this month, but Hamas refused to extend it, saying Israel had violated its terms.
The U.S. urged Israel to avoid civilian deaths, yet that is difficult because bombs are falling in a tiny, crowded coastal area that is home to 1.5 million people. Johndroe expressed U.S. concern about humanitarian needs in Gaza, and said victims must be given access to food and medical supplies.
Asked if the U.S. thinks Israel is justified in its strikes on Gaza, Johndroe replied: "The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself."
From the ranch, Bush spoke by telephone with King Abdullah of Jordan, who donated blood Monday for Gaza victims. The president, who took a call from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Saturday, also received a daily intelligence briefing via a secure video hookup and conferred with Vice President Dick Cheney, White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on the phone urging various parties to back a sustainable cease-fire.
Gordon Duguid, a spokesman for Rice, said the secretary of state had called her Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, five times since Dec. 26. He said Rice also has spoken with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, both of Israel; Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. She also called Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit three times and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Duguid said.
"We are encouraging all the nations in the region to take an active part in rebuilding the cease-fire so that we can return to the relative calm that was enjoyed in the region over the past six months," he told reporters in Washington. "We are working for a cease-fire now where Hamas must stop its rocket attacks on Israel. All sides then need to respect the cease-fire."
Aides to President-elect Barack Obama said Rice and her likely successor, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, had been in contact, and that Obama would discuss the situation with Clinton and James Jones, his incoming national security adviser.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other lawmakers also expressed support for Israel’s right to defend its citizens against rocket attacks from Hamas.
"As President-elect Obama has made clear time and again, no country should be forced to tolerate attacks on its people," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J. "Hamas is abusing the people of Gaza by using their homes as a base for terror operations. The world should no longer tolerate a terrorist government in the Gaza Strip."
Hamas can choose to be a partner in peace, recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence, Johndroe said.
"Last week, Hamas substantially increased its rocket and mortar attacks on the people of Israel. Hamas has once again shown its true colors as a terrorist organization that refused to even recognize Israel’s right to exist," Johndroe said. "In order for the violence to stop, Hamas must stop firing rockets into Israel and agree to respect a sustainable and durable cease-fire."
He would not speculate on how the U.S. would react if Israel, which has amassed tanks on the Gaza border, launched a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.
Johndroe repeated that Obama was getting daily intelligence briefings and would continue to be kept abreast of the situation. Bush had no immediate plans to speak publicly on the latest violence.
The president had hoped there would be a peace accord before he left office, but that is far from a reality. The White House contends, however, that Bush has laid groundwork that will lead to a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, which is ruled by the moderate, West-backed Mahmoud Abbas.
"What I think is different from eight years ago is that everyone recognizes that the two-state solution is the right way forward," Johndroe said.
But he added: "Clearly with the Hamas actions in the last few days, it’s not something that’s going to advance in the immediate, near term."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.