Video: Is a ground war in Gaza looming?

updated 12/27/2008 4:54:22 PM ET 2008-12-27T21:54:22

The United States on Saturday blamed the militant group Hamas for breaking a cease-fire and attacking Israel, which retaliated with strikes of its own during what became the single bloodiest day of fighting in years.

The White House called for the cease-fire to be restored, yet there were few indications that the violence, which has left more than 200 people dead and nearly another 400 wounded, was waning. Israeli officials said the operation in Gaza would widen if necessary.

It was "completely unacceptable" for Hamas, which controls Gaza, to launch attacks on Israel after a truce lasting several months, said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

"These people are nothing but thugs, so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas that indiscriminately kill their own people," Johndroe said in Texas as President George W. Bush spent the holidays at his ranch here. "They need to stop. We have said in the past that they have a choice to make. You can't have one foot in politics and one foot in terror."

Briefing for Obama
President-elect Barack Obama was receiving an intelligence briefing on Saturday from various security agencies, Johndroe said. Bush has spoken to regional leaders and the administration will remain in close contact, he said.

Obama also spoke during the day with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was keeping Bush abreast of the situation.

Brooke Anderson, Obama's national security spokeswoman, said Saturday that Obama "is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza, but there is one president at a time."

As Israel bombed Gaza, defiant Hamas leaders threatened revenge. Hamas "will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood," vowed spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank, condemned Israel. Egypt summoned the Israeli ambassador to express condemnation and opened its border with Gaza to allow ambulances to drive out some of the wounded.

Asked if the United States would back a continuation of the retaliatory strikes by Israel, Johndroe said: "The U.S. doesn't want to see any more violence. I think what we've got to see is Hamas stop firing rockets into Israel. That's what precipitated this."

A call from Saudi king
At his ranch, the president took a call from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who wanted to discuss the violence that began eight days after a six-month truce between Israel and the militants expired.

"The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza," Rice said in a statement. "The cease-fire should be restored immediately. The United States calls on all concerned to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the innocent people of Gaza."

Israeli warplanes launched counterattacks on dozens of security compounds across the Hamas-ruled territory in unprecedented waves of airstrikes. Most of those killed were security men, but an unknown number of civilians were also among the dead.

Hamas said all of its security installations were hit, threatened to resume suicide attacks, and sent at least 70 rockets and mortar shells crashing into Israeli border communities, according to the Israeli military. One Israeli was killed and at least six people were hurt.

With so many wounded, the Palestinian death toll was likely to rise. The strikes caused widespread panic and confusion in Gaza. Some of the Israeli missiles struck in densely populated areas as children were leaving school, and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children.

Humanitarian needs
Johndroe said the U.S. was concerned that humanitarian needs were being met in Gaza. He urged Israel to avoid striking civilians, but he refrained from commenting specifically on positions that had been hit on the ground.

"I know they are targeting security and Hamas headquarters facilities," Johndroe said. "We urge them (the Israelis) to avoid civilian casualties."

"The message from the United States is that Hamas is a terrorist organization that is firing rockets into Israel and they fired them onto their own people as well," Johndroe said, noting reports he'd seen about the death of two Palestinian girls. "Hamas has done nothing for the people of Gaza."

The offensive has sparked angry protests throughout the Arab world. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Vatican, the U.N. secretary-general and special Mideast envoy Tony Blair called for an immediate restoration of calm. The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss the situation.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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