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President George W. Bush and his top advisers conducted an urgent round of telephone diplomacy Tuesday to help end the deadly conflict between Israel and Hamas, but insisted that if any new cease-fire is to work, it must be honored by the Islamic militant group.
"We want to see an end to the violence for the long term, not just the immediate," White House deputy press secretary Gordon Johndroe said, briefing reporters in Crawford, where Bush is staying at his ranch. "We don’t want a cease-fire agreement that isn’t worth the piece of paper it’s written on. We want something that’s lasting, and most importantly, respected by Hamas," which controls the Gaza Strip.
Under international pressure, Israel is considering a 48-hour halt to its punishing air campaign on Hamas targets in Gaza to see whether the Palestinian militants will stop their rocket attacks on southern Israel. The United Nations said that during a teleconference Tuesday, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia appealed for an immediate cease-fire that would be fully respected, and called for the serious humanitarian and economic needs in Gaza to be addressed.
Since Saturday, more than 350 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli air onslaught against Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers. The offensive came shortly after a rocky, six-month truce expired. The U.S. blames Hamas for breaking the truce. It says Israel has a right to defend its citizens from the attacks, yet the Arab world has been enraged by the four days of bombings by Israeli warplanes.
Despite the bombings, Hamas has kept up its barrage of rockets, which have killed at least four Israelis since the weekend. Many more Israelis have been sent running for bomb shelters — some of them in cities under threat of attack for the first time because the range of Hamas’ rockets has grown.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that regional and international partners had not done enough to help end the Israeli-Hamas conflict. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called Ban’s criticism "unfair," saying the United States has been very active diplomatically.
From the ranch, where he was clearing brush and relaxing with first lady Laura Bush, Bush had a briefing via a secured video conference with top advisers. He later called moderate Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who help govern the West Bank, but not Gaza. They are rivals of Hamas, a group the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, which in June 2007 seized control of Gaza, a crowded, coastal territory that is home to 1.5 million people.
Bush and Abbas agreed that if any new cease-fire agreement is to be effective in the Mideast, "it must be respected by Hamas," Johndroe said.
He said that Fayyed thanked the United States for an $85 million contribution that it made this week to a special United Nations fund to assist Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. "The president is concerned about the citizens of Gaza, but not the Hamas terrorist leaders who are doing this to the people of Gaza," Johndroe said.
Bush also called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to thank him for his peacemaking role there. Bush talked on the phone Monday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and took a call on Saturday from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Bush last talked to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before the crisis began.
"These other governments in the region, such as Egypt, the officials in the Palestinian Authority, Jordanians, others who are in touch with the various Hamas factions, will make it clear that this is in no one’s interests — certainly not the Palestinian people, certainly not the people of Gaza, and definitely not the people of the entire Middle East region," Johndroe said. "All those governments, as they have been in the past, are committed to assisting with the current situation."
The State Department said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was keeping up steady U.S. calls for a "durable and sustainable" — but not necessarily immediate — cease-fire to end Israel’s assault on Gaza and rocket attacks by Palestinian militants based there. In phone calls with Israeli and Arab leaders, including the Jordanian king as well as other interested regional and international officials, Rice pressed for a durable solution to the fighting that is not used by Hamas to launch more rockets into Israel, spokesman Gordon Duguid said.
Rice called King Abdullah on Tuesday. On Monday, she spoke to Olmert and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as well as the foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington, Edith Lederer at the United Nations and Ibrahim Barzak and Jason Keyser in Gaza City, contributed to this report.