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Israeli Self-Defense: Merkel Blasts Hamas for Middle East Violence

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday said the blame for renewed violence in the Middle East can be pinned on Hamas. Others, though, say Israel's response with mass air strikes has been disproportionate.

Domestically, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has often been criticized for trimming her positions to take advantage of whichever direction the political wind might be blowing. On Monday, though, she was very clear about where the blame should lie for the renewed Palestinian-Israeli violence in the Middle East.

Speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by phone, she said responsibility for the three-day-old Israeli air offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip lies "clearly and exclusively" with Hamas, according to government spokesman Thomas Steg. A statement on the Chancellery Web site referred to Israel's "legitimate right" to defend its people and territory.

Merkel's comments joined a chorus of voices slamming Hamas for its decision to allow a cease-fire to elapse on Dec. 19 and to resume firing rockets from the Gaza Strip across the border into Israel. Dozens of homemade Qassam missiles have slammed into Israel in the last several days, killing two and wounding several. Israel has responded with massive air raids that began on Saturday. At least 300 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed in the bombings.

The US has likewise pointed at Hamas as being responsible for the renewed violence. "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," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a statement.

Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, was even more direct. "These people are nothing but thugs, so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas that indiscriminately kill their own people," he said.

Still, much of the global and European reaction has also been critical of Israel's forceful response. In a statement released on Monday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said "I am deeply concerned by continuing missile strikes from Gaza on Israel and by Israel's response."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was even more critical of Israel, calling the air raid campaign against the Gaza Strip "disproportionate force." Sarkozy spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by telephone on Sunday and also condemned "the provocations which have led to this situation."

Javier Solana, chief of foreign policy for the European Union, said "the EU has repeatedly condemned rocket attacks against Israel," before adding "the current Israeli strikes are inflicting an unacceptable toll on Palestinian civilians."

Despite the protest from capital cities around the world, it seems unlikely that the violence will stop anytime soon. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has indicated that a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip may be the next step and Israeli tanks are amassing on the border. Hamas, for its part, has denied a government statement from Senegal which claimed that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal had told the Senegalese president he was ready to sign a cease-fire.

The Palestinians themselves also seem split on how to react to the Gaza Strip raids. An aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that Abbas "demands that the Israeli government stop this aggression immediately." But on Sunday in Egypt, he also seemed to place some of the blame with Hamas. "We talked to them (Hamas) and we told them 'please, we ask you, do not end the truce. Let the truce continue and not stop' so that we could have avoided what happened," Abbas said on Sunday in Cairo during a visit for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Abbas' Fatah Party holds power in the West Bank, but has had no leverage in the Gaza Strip since June 2007, when Hamas violentally wrested power away from Abbas' Fatah party in the area. Since then, the two Palestinian factions have been deeply divided with the European Union and Americans both classifying Hamas as a terrorist organization.

The split is likely to make it even more difficult to find a resolution to the current crisis. Egypt has long been attempting to negotiate a settlement between Hamas and Fatah, but has found little success so far. Such a settlement though, is necessary before the Israeli-Palestinian peace process can continue, say many.

"We need to devise a new strategy for Gaza," former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is serving as the Mideast Quartet's special envoy representing the US, Russia, the United Nations and the EU, said on Saturday. One "which brings that territory back under the legitimate rule of the Palestinian Authority in a manner which ends their suffering and fully protects the security of Israel."

cgh -- with wire reports

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