CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - The United States blamed Hamas for breaking a ceasefire and provoking Israeli air strikes on Saturday that killed more than 200 people in Gaza, which is controlled by the Palestinian group.
Washington did not call for an end to the Israeli attacks but urged it to avoid civilian casualties and placed the onus for ending the violence squarely on Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization.
"What we've got to see is Hamas stop firing rockets into Israel, that's what precipitated this," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, calling the Islamic group "thugs."
The United States has worked to isolate Hamas since it won a Palestinian parliamentary election in January 2006.
Israeli officials said the assault on the Gaza Strip in pursuit of Hamas may last some time.
Saudi King Abdullah spoke about the situation with President George W. Bush, who is at his Texas ranch, said Johndroe, who offered no details of the conversation.
The air strikes followed a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's security cabinet to widen reprisals for Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel.
The United States had been aware of that authorization to pursue Hamas and U.S. officials had been in contact with Israeli officials, Johndroe said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed concern about the escalating violence and called for immediate restoration of the ceasefire. "We strongly condemn the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and hold Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence there," she said in a statement.
In an apparent warning to minimize the risk to civilians, Rice said, "the United States calls on all concerned to protect innocent lives and to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza."
The number of people killed in Gaza was the highest one-day death toll in 60 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Militants in the Gaza Strip, who have launched dozens of rocket attacks against Israel since a truce expired just over a week ago, fired more salvos that killed one Israeli man.
The United States is Israel's strongest ally and the Bush administration has taken the position that Israel has the right to defend itself.
Bush had hoped to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before leaving office and in November 2007 hosted a conference at Annapolis, Maryland, to relaunch talks aimed at reaching agreement on a Palestinian state by the end of this year.
But the Annapolis process stalled and all sides acknowledged that there was no chance for a peace deal before the Republican president leaves the White House on Jan. 20 when Democrat Barack Obama will be inaugurated as president.
Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii, did not comment on the Israeli air strikes. His national security spokesman, Brooke Anderson, said the president-elect was "closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza, but there is one president at a time."
Obama visited Israel and the occupied West Bank in July. In an apparent jab at Bush's last-minute efforts to secure peace, Obama pledged at the time not to "wait a few years into my term or my second term if I'm elected" to press for a deal.
Lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace has eluded efforts by many U.S. presidents and the new Obama administration will have to grapple with calming tensions in the region as well as dealing with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a crumbling global economy.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington)
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