Bush Accuses Hamas of Provoking Israeli Attacks

Assault on Gaza Strip continues as rockets fall on southern Israel.
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 3, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 2 -- President Bush issued a sharp condemnation of Hamas on Friday, accusing the Palestinian Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip of provoking Israeli military action with rocket attacks and then increasing the death toll by hiding among civilian populations.

In a recorded radio address that was released a day early, Bush avoided faulting Israel for civilian casualties and called for a monitoring system to curtail weapons smuggling into Gaza. Bush's remarks, released in Washington, were his first public comments on the conflict since Israel began an intensive campaign of airstrikes against Hamas a week ago.

Bush has generally supported Israeli military actions during his eight years in office, while strongly condemning Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and other anti-Israel groups that are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. At the same time, Bush vowed to finalize a Middle East peace plan by the time he left office -- a pledge that was abandoned even before the latest violence.

Israel pressed its assault Friday, bombing a mosque it said was used to store weapons and the homes of at least half a dozen Hamas leaders, as Hamas continued to fire rockets into southern Israel. Israel also allowed more than 200 holders of foreign passports to leave Gaza, adding to concerns that a wider air assault or a ground operation was imminent.

Most of the homes of Hamas operatives targeted Friday were apparently empty, although wire services reported that one man was killed in the strikes. On Thursday, Israeli forces bombed the home of Nizar Rayyan, a Hamas cleric who had advocated suicide attacks against Israelis, killing him, his four wives and 11 of his children.

The Israeli military said it conducted 65 airstrikes in Gaza on Friday, hitting tunnels and weapons storage facilities. More than 30 rockets were launched from Gaza into Israel, the military said.

As of Friday, Gaza medical officials placed the Palestinian death toll at 431 killed, including 70 children and 45 women, and more than 2,200 injured. Christopher Gunness, a U.N. spokesman, said 25 percent of those killed in Gaza were civilians. Four Israelis have been killed by rocket attacks since Israel launched the offensive, but no serious injuries were reported Friday.

Also Friday, Israel allowed 65 trucks carrying humanitarian supplies, provided by the United Nations and other agencies, to enter Gaza.

In the past week, the Israeli military has counted more than 500 rockets fired into southern Israel from Gaza and conducted 750 airstrikes against targets in the strip.

Israel had authorized 350 to 400 foreigners living in Gaza to leave the territory Friday morning, and the military said 226 foreigners departed. Among them were 108 Russians, mostly women and children, according to Anastasia Fedorova, the press secretary at the Russian Embassy. Eastern Europeans and Americans also left.

Most of those who left were wives of Palestinians. Their husbands stayed behind because they had only Palestinian Authority passports or because they needed to stay with their businesses, Fedorova said. Many worried that the fighting could worsen if Israeli troops launched a ground offensive, she added.

"They were very happy just to get out of Gaza. Each lady came out with three or four or five children," Fedorova said. "Nobody can guarantee their security when they stay in Gaza."

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