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Obama supports Israeli right to defend itself amid Gaza truce talk

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U.S. President Barack Obama Sunday said it was “preferable” for the Gaza crisis to be ended without a “ramping up” of Israeli military activity, but squarely blamed militants for causing the showdown.

“Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory,” Obama said, adding, “if that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that is preferable.”

"That is not just preferable for the people of Gaza, it is also preferable for Israelis because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they are much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded," he said.

Obama spoke, in Thailand, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was ready to "significantly expand" its operation against militants in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, sparking fears of a new Israeli invasion.

The U.S. president said the "precipitating event" of the Gaza crisis was a string of extremist rocket attacks on Israeli territory, which he said no nation in the world would tolerate.

He also backed the Jewish state's right of self defense, on a day in which the crisis deepened, with two rockets shot down over Tel Aviv and the death toll from retaliatory strikes by Israel hit around 50 people.

Truce?

Israeli President Shimon Peres said in an interview on Sunday he welcomed efforts by his Egyptian counterpart to secure a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict but accused Hamas of rejecting the proposals.

He also said he could forsee a scaling back of the situation and stressed that Israel was taking great pains not to hit civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Asked by Britain’s Sky News television if he saw any possibility of a de-escalation of the conflict, he replied from Jerusalem: “As far as we are concerned, the answer is yes.

“We also appreciate the efforts of the president of Egypt (Mohammed Mursi) to introduce a ceasefire. But until now, Hamas has rejected the proposal of the Egyptian president.”

Hamas “don’t even listen to their Arab brothers,” he said.

“We don’t escalate at all. What Israel is doing is self defense.

“We don’t have any purpose to conquer Gaza.”

Senior Hamas officials said on Sunday that Egypt-mediated talks with Israel to end the Gaza conflict were "positive" but now focused on the possible stumbling block of guaranteeing a ceasefire's terms.

One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an outcome acceptable to Hamas would be assurances by the United States, Israel's main backer, to be the "guaranteeing party."

"There are efforts to that end," he told AFP. "If that is not the case, I don't think there's anyone who wants to gamble with his political reputation."

Hamas, now in the fifth day of a conflict with Israel around Gaza, wants guarantees that "the aggression and assassinations would stop," said another senior official.

At least 55 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed over the past five days.

The official said the talks, which he described as "positive," were now focused on ensuring the terms of the truce.

The Islamist movement also demands that the siege Israel imposed on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas seized the territory be lifted -- an unfulfilled condition when Hamas agreed a truce in January 2009 to end the last major conflict there.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday threatened to expand the assault on Hamas-run Gaza as the Jewish state pressed ahead with a fifth day of strikes, killing six people including four children as truce efforts intensified.

“Basically our purpose is peace; their purpose is to destroy Israel. It’s not an easy situation,” Peres said.

The 89-year-old said Israel was making a “supreme effort” to avoid civilian casualties but “unfortunately they use their homes, even their mosques to hide the arms, to make them headquarters of shooting.

“In spite of it, and until now I believe, almost no civilians were hit.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Sunday that Israel would not negotiate a truce with Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers as long as rocket fire continues from the Palestinian enclave.

“The first and absolute condition for a truce is stopping all fire from Gaza,” he said before meeting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, adding that all militant factions in Gaza would have to commit to cease rocket fire.

“We want a long-term arrangement,” Lieberman said.