White House blames Hamas for Gaza violence

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The Independent US

The White House blamed Hamas for the upsurge in violence in Gaza, denouncing the organisation for breaching a six-month ceasefire agreement and relaunching rocket attacks on Israel.

After being briefed on the security situation in the Middle East yesterday, President George Bush said that Hamas must end its attacks if there is to be a “durable” end to the violence.

The group had “shown its true colours as a terrorist organisation”, Mr Bush’s spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where the president is on vacation. "The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself."

Asked if the Israelis would be justified in seeking to destroy Hamas if it does not renounce further cross-border mortar and rocket attacks, Mr Johndroe said, "I think what people want is peace on the ground and an end to the violence so people can go about living normal lives, and especially people in southern Israel, who spend so much time living in bomb shelters. It's unacceptable."

Some White House staffers believe that Israel’s assault may have been timed so as to be over by the time Mr Bush leaves office and Barack Obama’s administration begins its promised push for a long-term Arab-Israeli peace deal. Mr Obama worked hard during the election campaign to portray himself as a friend of Israel, amid scepticism from the Jewish community in the US, and his words on a trip to the country were yesterday being used in the Israeli parliament to justify the deadliest raids on Gaza in decades.

Ehud Barak, defence minister, told members of the Knesset: "Obama said that if rockets were being fired at his home while his two daughters were sleeping, he would do everything he could to prevent it."

During his visit to Israel in July, Mr Obama held a press conference in Sderot, near the Gaza border, which had been a frequent target of rocket attacks from Palestinian militants. To underscore the point, the news conference was held next to a collection of the spent rockets.

"If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that,” he said there. “The state of Israel faces determined enemies who seek its destruction, but it also has a friend and ally in the United States that will always stand by the people of Israel.”

Mr Obama’s transition team has made no public comment on the situation in Gaza, saying that “the US has only one president at a time” and that Mr Bush continues to speak for the US until he leaves office on 20 January.

However, Mr Obama has been receiving detailed daily briefings on the situation during his holiday in Hawaii and the White House promised yesterday that these would continue.

Mr Bush was briefed on the Israeli assault on Gaza by vice-president Dick Cheney and his security chiefs yesterday. The White House repeated its call for an end to the violence and said both sides should make way for humanitarian aid to safely reach the people of Gaza. The president also spoke to Jordan’s King Abdullah to say it supported a sustainable ceasefire.

The upsurge in violence means that the early days of the Obama administration are likely to be taken up with shoring up a fragile ceasefire instead of making the all-out push for a comprehensive settlement for which it has previously hoped. Mr Obama is expected to talk extensively this week with his incoming national security adviser, retired general James Jones, and to Hillary Clinton, his nominee for secretary of state.

Mrs Clinton has long taken a hard line against Hamas, describing them as a terrorist organisation whose administration in Gaza cannot be recognised until it renounces violence and recognises Israel’s right to exist. However, her appointment signals a strengthening of the position of the State Department and a renewed centrality for diplomacy in American foreign policy.

Mrs Clinton is planning to reinstate the practice, from her husband’s administration, of appointing envoys to certain troubled countries or regions, and has begun considering a high-profile envoy to the Middle East to kickstart the peace process.