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."
Imad Abulkhair, 38, a pediatrician in Gaza City, said he is praying to be able to leave. He is married to a Romanian, and they have three children. "The children are scared. The bombing is going on continuously. We want to get out of Gaza," Abulkhair said. "The future is not promising."
But Abulkhair has no foreign passport. The Romanian Embassy in Tel Aviv said it would provide him with a visa, and he said he hopes the Israelis will let him leave.
"My wife and children do not want to leave if I have to stay behind," he said. "Either we all leave Gaza or we all stay. The important thing is for us to be together."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that the United States and its allies were pushing hard for a truce, although Israel and Hamas rejected international calls this week for a cease-fire. Like Bush, she placed the blame for the crisis squarely on Hamas.
"Hamas has used Gaza as a launching pad for rockets against Israeli cities, and has contributed deeply to a very bad daily life for the Palestinian people in Gaza and to a humanitarian situation that we have all been trying to address," Rice told reporters.
In his radio address, to be broadcast Saturday morning, Bush said he has been in contact with leaders throughout the region, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. He also said he would continue to keep President-elect Barack Obama informed and said Rice "is actively engaged in diplomacy" aimed at achieving "a meaningful cease-fire that is fully respected."
Bush's criticism of Hamas was focused largely on allegations that it endangers innocent Palestinians, using civilian areas to hide in and focusing its resources on weapons. "Regrettably, Palestinian civilians have been killed in recent days," he said.
Bush also said he was "deeply concerned" about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and pledged to increase U.S. assistance.
On Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. "Israel has been supplying comprehensive humanitarian aid to the strip," she said during a trip to Paris.
Bush said Hamas had worsened living conditions in Gaza. "By spending its resources on rocket launchers instead of roads and schools, Hamas has demonstrated that it has no intention of serving the Palestinian people," Bush said.
The movement won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, then seized control of the territory in 2007 by expelling forces loyal to Abbas, who favors seeking a negotiated peace with Israel. Israel has implemented a punishing economic blockade of Gaza since Hamas's takeover.
Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation.
The flare-up of violence in Gaza this week underscores the difficulties that the Bush administration has faced in attempting to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The latest effort was launched by Bush, Abbas and Olmert during a November 2007 peace conference in Annapolis, Md., but has shown little progress. Hamas was excluded from the talks because it is labeled a terrorist group by the United States.
Also Friday, pro-Hamas demonstrations took place after Friday prayers across the Arab world. In Amman, Jordan, wire services reported that at least 60,000 protesters chanted for Hamas to increase rocket attacks against Israel. Large pro-Palestinian protests also occurred in Turkey and Vienna.
In Cairo, police prevented a rally from taking place downtown. Egypt, a U.S. ally that has made peace with Israel, is concerned about Hamas, which has historical and ideological links to the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's main opposition group.
Demonstrations, mostly small, took place across the West Bank, underscoring the divisions among Palestinians who support Hamas and those who support the movement's rival, Fatah, led by Abbas. In Ramallah, Hamas loyalists tussled with Fatah supporters, calling them collaborators.
In East Jerusalem, Israel deployed riot police who allowed only men older than 55 with Israeli-issued identity cards to enter the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City for Friday prayers, sparking anger.
In Bethlehem, a few hundred demonstrators marched in the city calling for unity between Hamas and Fatah leaders against Israel. Khaled al-Azza, one of the protest's organizers, declared at the rally, "We call upon the international community to stop the aggression and stop the siege over Gaza and for the Arab countries to take conclusive decisions on Gaza."
Eggen reported from Washington. Correspondent Griff Witte and special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.