President makes first public comments since strikes began
JERUSALEM – President Bush issued a sharp condemnation of Hamas on Friday, accusing the Palestinian Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip of provoking Israeli military action with rocket attacks and then increasing the death toll by hiding among civilian populations.
In a recorded radio address that was released a day early, Bush avoided faulting Israel for civilian casualties and called for a monitoring system to curtail weapons smuggling into Gaza. Bush’s remarks, released in Washington, were his first public comments on the conflict since Israel began an intensive campaign of airstrikes against Hamas a week ago.
Bush has generally supported Israeli military actions during his eight years in office, while strongly condemning Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and other anti-Israel groups that are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.
Israel pressed its assault Friday, bombing a mosque it said was used to store weapons and the homes of at least half a dozen Hamas leaders, as Hamas continued to fire rockets into southern Israel. Israel also allowed more than 200 holders of foreign passports to leave Gaza, adding to concerns that a wider air assault or a ground operation was imminent.
Most of the homes of Hamas operatives targeted Friday were apparently empty, although wire services reported that one man was killed in the strikes. On Thursday, Israeli forces bombed the home of Nizar Rayan, a Hamas cleric who had advocated suicide attacks against Israelis, killing him, his four wives and 11 of his children.
The Israeli military said it conducted 65 airstrikes in Gaza on Friday, hitting tunnels and weapons storage facilities. More than 30 rockets were launched from Gaza into Israel, the military said.
As of Friday, Gaza medical officials placed the Palestinian death toll at 431 killed, including 70 children and 45 women, and more than 2,200 injured. Christopher Gunness, a U.N. spokesman, said 25 percent of those killed in Gaza were civilians. Four Israelis have been killed by rocket attacks since Israel launched the offensive, but no serious injuries were reported Friday.
In the past week, the Israeli military has counted more than 500 rockets fired into southern Israel from Gaza and conducted 750 airstrikes against targets in the strip.