Nicola Smith - TimesOnline
Britain and the United States were on a collision course with their European allies last night after refusing to call for an end to Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.
The wave of attacks marked a violent end to President George W Bush’s sporadic Middle East peace efforts. The White House put the blame squarely on Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organisation, for provoking the Israeli blitz.
Britain echoed the call for “militants” to stop firing rockets into Israel while calling for “maximum restraint” to avoid casualties.
The response was in sharp contrast to demands by the European Union for an “immediate ceasefire” and criticism by France of the use of “disproportionate force”.
“Hamas’s continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop,” said Gordon Johndroe, the White House spokesman, in Texas where Bush is spending the holidays at his Crawford ranch.
Britain declined to condemn Israel for the onslaught and called for an end to rocket attacks by militants.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, blamed Hamas for the raid. “The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza,” she said.
Gordon Brown, the prime minister, said: “I am deeply concerned by continuing missile strikes from Gaza on Israel and by Israel’s response today.
“Peaceful means are the only way of reaching a lasting solution to the situation in Gaza. I call on Gazan militants to cease all rocket attacks on Israel immediately. These attacks are designed to cause random destruction and to undermine the prospects of peace talks led by President Abbas.”
Brown added: “I understand the Israeli government’s sense of obligation to its population. Israel needs to meet its humanitarian obligations, act in a way to further the long-term vision of a two-state solution and do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties.”
The muted response of Britain and America was in sharp contrast to the statement issued on behalf of Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who called for an immediate ceasefire and the renewal of the truce declared by Hamas leaders, which had expired on December 19.
“I call for an immediate cessation of military actions on both sides,” he said.
“The EU has repeatedly condemned rocket attacks against Israel. The current Israeli strikes are inflicting an unacceptable toll on Palestinian civilians and will only worsen the humanitarian crisis.”
The French presidency of the EU issued a statement on behalf of the 27-nation bloc, condemning both sides. “The EU condemns the Israeli bombardments as well as rocket attacks from Gaza. It demands that this stops immediately,” it said.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, also went further than Britain and America in condemning the use of “disproportionate” force.
In a statement from Paris he said that he “strongly condemns the irresponsible provocations which led to this situation as well as the disproportionate use of force”. The statement added that he “deplores the heavy civilian losses and expresses his condolence to the innocent victims and their families”.
The EU’s criticism of Israel’s actions was echoed by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, who said he was “deeply alarmed” and appealed for “an immediate halt to all violence”.
Israeli leaders have stepped up their rhetoric against Hamas in recent days, leaving no doubt about their intentions. Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israeli defence forces, said on Thursday: “We will need to use our full force to hit the terrorist infrastructure.”