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Obama defends Israel's right to defend itself

US President Barack Obama defends Israel's airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, but he warns that escalating the offensive could deepen the death toll and undermine any hope of peace with the Palestinians.

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New York: The US President, Barack Obama, has personally urged leaders in Turkey and Egypt to engage with Hamas over a "de-escalation" of hostilities in Gaza, while continuing to support Israeli strikes despite mounting Palestinian civilian casualties.

Speaking on board Air Force One en route to Asia, the White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes blamed Hamas for the current round of violence, saying the "precipitating factor" for Israeli air strikes were rockets fired into civilian territories from Gaza.

Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rocket for far too long. 

Asked about the bombing of government buildings in Gaza – including the offices of the Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh's – Mr Rhodes said he wouldn't comment on "specific targeting choices" other than to say the administration would "always underscore the importance of avoiding civilian casualties".

Allies ... Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, meets Egypt's President. Mohamed Mursi, for the first time at the weekend.

Allies ... Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, meets Egypt's President. Mohamed Mursi, for the first time at the weekend. Photo: AP

But he reiterated the White House view that Hamas was responsible for the latest outburst of violence.

"Just to be clear on the precipitating factor: these rockets had been fired into Israeli civilian areas and territory for some time now. So Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rocket for far too long, and that is what led the Israelis to take the action that they did in Gaza," he said.

He said the US wanted the same thing as Israelis: "an end to the rocket fire coming out of Gaza".

Residents in Okafim, southern Israel, inspect the damage from a rocket fired from Gaza.

Residents in Okafim, southern Israel, inspect the damage from a rocket fired from Gaza. Photo: AP

It emerged on Saturday that Mr Obama had spoken to the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Egyptian president, Mohamed Mursi.

Both men had the "ability to play a constructive role in engaging Hamas and encouraging a process of de-escalation", Mr Rhodes said.

But Mr Erdogan appeared to take a different side in the conflict, despite the call from Mr Obama. On Saturday the Turkish leader vowed support for Gaza's Palestinians in a speech at Cairo University in Egypt. He also met Mr Mursi for the first time since the Eggyptian Islamist leader was elected in late June. Mr Erdogan said that win at the polls offered hope to Palestinians.

The US has been reaching out to leaders across the Middle East as Israel and Hamas trade volleys of fire.

The Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has spoken to the foreign ministers if Israel, Turkey and Egypt in the past few days, as well as Jordan's King Abdullah.

But the US has been clear in pledging its support for Israel, its staunch ally.

Mr Obama has spoken to the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, every day since the current round of Israeli air strikes in Gaza began.

At a briefing on Friday, a State Department spokeswoman summed up the US position: "We are urging a de-escalation of this conflict. We are urging those countries with influence on Hamas and other groups in Gaza to use that influence to get a de-escalation," the spokeswoman said.

"We support . . . Israel's right to self-defence, and we obviously express our regret and sadness for the loss of life on all sides."

Israel has seen the US stance as a clear signal that it has a virtually free hand.

On Friday, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, said during a visit to Capitol Hill: "The United States has given us the full backing to take whatever measures are necessary to defend our citizens from Hamas terror."

The Palestinian delegation to Washington has condemned the US response to the crisis as "biased and weak".

Guardian News & Media