In rare public criticism of Israel, the White House rebuked the Jewish state yesterday for its deadly incursion into Gaza, saying it did not "serve the purposes of peace and security" and had "worsened the humanitarian situation."
The statement came one day after President Bush equated the United States' struggle against terrorism with Israel's in a speech before a pro-Israel lobbying group that was interrupted by applause 67 times, and four days after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell first called on Israel to stop the destruction of Palestinian homes. Since Sunday, more than 40 Palestinians have been killed, prompting a storm of worldwide criticism, including from the U.N. Security Council.
The council adopted a resolution yesterday condemning Israel's killing of Palestinian civilians and calling for an end to the destruction of homes. The resolution passed 14 to 0 in the 15-member council. The United States, which usually vetoes resolutions criticizing Israel, abstained.
Bush had initially hesitated yesterday to criticize Israel after an Israeli helicopter gunship and tank fired rockets and artillery shells at Palestinian protesters, saying he wanted more information. Israel released a statement expressing regret for the "tragic event."
The White House statement, issued in the name of press secretary Scott McClellan, stopped short of condemning Israel and did not ask for a stop to the incursion. The statement urged Israel to "exercise maximum restraint now." It also called on the Palestinian Authority to consolidate its security forces and "act to stop smuggling and halt terrorism."
The White House added that events "serve as a grim reminder of the wisdom of Israel disengaging from Gaza," the plan proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon but recently rejected by his Likud Party.
Powell first signaled the administration's change of heart when he told reporters late yesterday that Israel's actions "have caused a problem and have worsened the situation and I think made it more difficult for us to move forward and get back into the peace process." The White House statement was released about an hour later.
The administration's criticism of Israel came after Arab television stations broadcast reports that U.S. aircraft had attacked a wedding party in Iraq that killed dozens of people near the Syrian border. U.S. military officials said the fighting involved insurgents, and a senior administration official in Washington said the reports of the U.S. attack played no role in the rebuke of Israel for its attack on civilians.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan condemned Israel's killing of Palestinian demonstrators and appealed to Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to use their influence to bring the situation in Gaza "under control."
Annan said he also received a personal appeal from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for international assistance -- "pleading with the U.N. and the international community to do something."
"I appeal to the Israeli government to halt this action and exercise much more restraint," he said. "They have an obligation, as an occupying power, for the protection of civilians."
Powell said he and Rice had held a conference call with Dov Weisglass, Sharon's chief of staff, to express the administration's concern over the Gaza operation, which Israeli officials said is to close down smuggling tunnels and capture terrorists.
The administration official, speaking on condition that he not be named, said Powell and Rice acknowledged Israel's right to act in self-defense but warned that there is a "calculus" involved: "What is the action and the reaction? What does the operation get you? What is the proportionality here?" He said U.S. officials believe the operation is "inflammatory and provocative, and it is hard to see how this operation serves a useful purpose."
The official rejected the idea that Bush's speech Tuesday before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in which he said Israel "has every right to defend itself from terror," represented any sort of green light. "If anyone read that as a green light, I would say they are colorblind," he said.
"We're just devastated by this loss of innocent life," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said on al-Jazeera television. "The president has called on both parties to exercise restraint, and this is what happens when restraint is not exercised."
Israeli Ambassador Danny Ayalon said Israeli officials have listened carefully to U.S. officials' concerns. He said Israel had faced an "onslaught" of terrorist activities since Sharon's plan to leave Gaza had been proposed -- resulting in the deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers -- and needed to act.
"We take it very seriously what they told us and we are using restraint," Ayalon said. "It is not a rosy picture, but sometimes you do what you need to do and we want to end it as soon as possible."
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.