President George W. Bush on Friday branded the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel an "act of terror" and outlined his own condition for a cease-fire in Gaza, saying no peace deal would be acceptable without monitoring to halt the flow of smuggled weapons to terrorist groups.
Bush chose his weekly taped radio address to speak for the first time about one of the bloodiest Mideast clashes in decades. It began a week ago. Israeli warplanes have rained bombs on Gaza, targeting the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has traumatized southern Israel with intensifying rocket attacks.
"The United States is leading diplomatic efforts to achieve a meaningful cease-fire that is fully respected," Bush said. "Another one-way cease-fire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable. And promises from Hamas will not suffice — there must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end."
The White House released Bush's radio address a day early. It airs on Saturday morning.
Letting the crisis shift
Despite Bush's account of a U.S. leadership role, with time running out on his presidency, the administration seemed increasingly ready Friday to let the crisis in Gaza shift to President-elect Barack Obama. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefed Bush on developments in Gaza, and she continued furious telephone diplomacy to arrange a truce. Yet, she said she had no plans to make an emergency visit to the region.
More than 400 Palestinians and four Israelis have been killed in the latest offensive. The U.N. estimated Friday that a quarter of the Palestinians killed were civilians. In their waning days in power, Bush and Rice have been working the phones with world allies.
Bush offered no criticism of Israel, depicting the country's air assaults as a response to the attacks on its people. The White House will not comment on whether it views the Israeli response as proportionate or not to the scope of rockets attacks on Israel.
"This recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas — a Palestinian terrorist group supported by Iran and Syria that calls for Israel's destruction," Bush said.
The president said Hamas ultimately ended the latest cease-fire on Dec. 19 and "soon unleashed a barrage of rockets and mortars that deliberately targeted innocent Israelis — an act of terror that is opposed by the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, President (Mahmoud) Abbas."
Gaza isolated since Hamas victory
Hamas-run Gaza has been largely isolated from the rest of the world since the Islamic militants won parliamentary elections in 2006. Then Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, expelling forces loyal to the moderate Abbas.
Bush expressed deep concern about the humanitarian suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza. U.N. officials say Gaza's 1.5 million residents face an alarming situation under constant Israeli bombardment, with hospitals overcrowded and both fuel and food supplies growing scarce.
"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. "America has helped by providing tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, and this week we contributed an additional $85 million through the United Nations. We have consistently called on all in the region to ensure that assistance reaches those in need."
The White House has cautiously said Israel must be mindful of the toll its military strikes will have on civilians. Here, too, Bush blamed Hamas for hiding within the civilian population. "Regrettably, Palestinian civilians have been killed in recent days," he said.
Cease-fire calls grow
International calls for a cease-fire have been growing. Bush promised to stay engaged with U.S. partners in the Middle East and Europe and keep Obama updated. Obama is receiving the same intelligence reports on Gaza that Bush is.
Rice has spoken to both Obama and his choice for secretary of state, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, about the situation at least once in the last week. Obama and Clinton have remained mum out of deference to Bush, who still has 18 days in office.
There have been growing calls for Rice to intervene with Israel in person amid rising international concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. Her decision to stay away will likely disappoint those calling for a more robust U.S. role, particularly as French President Nicolas Sarkozy intends visit the region next week.
In recent days, U.S. officials had said that a Rice trip to the Middle East, as a first stop on a long-planned visit to China next week, was under consideration. But those officials said Friday that Rice would stay in Washington. They spoke on condition of anonymity because an announcement is not expected before the weekend.