Dick Cheney: Israel didn`t seek U.S. okay before Gaza invasion
Rice cancels long-planned visit to China in order to maintain efforts to reach a cease-fire agreement.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that Israel did not seek U.S. approval before launching a ground invasion against Hamas, in an escalation of the bloodiest Israeli-Palestinian clash in year.
From the White House to Capitol Hill, U.S. officials remained firmly behind Israel. They urged a cease-fire, but put the onus on Hamas, as Israeli troops and tanks cut through the Gaza Strip.
The Gaza crisis forced Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel a long-planned trip to China this week. Rice has been making a stream of phone calls to allies in the Mideast and Europe in hopes of fostering a cease-fire in Gaza, but has no plans to visit the Mideast as part of that effort.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will travel to Beijing on Wednesday in Rice's place to honor 30 years of U.S-China diplomatic ties, the State Department announced Sunday.
U.S. lawmakers defended the Israeli ground incursion as a justifiable response to Hamas rocket fire on Israel.
Cheney said "Israel didn't seek clearance or approval from us, certainly before thousands of soldiers pushed into Gaza after nightfall on Saturday."
He did not directly answer whether Israel informed its powerful ally, the U.S., of its plans before launching them. But the ground offensive, which followed a week of punishing aerial raids on Hamas, had been expected as Israeli forces deployed near the border.
"They have said, now, for a period of months - they told me on my last trip over there - that they didn't want to have to act, where Gaza was concerned," Cheney said. "They had gotten out of there three years ago. But if the rocketing didn't stop, they felt they had no choice but to take action. And if they did, they would be very aggressive, in terms of trying to take downHamas. And that's exactly what's happened."
U.S. leaders have carefully noted the consequences of a new war, including a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the death of civilians there. But they point blame one-sidedly on Hamas, which has called for the destruction of Israel and is deemed by the U.S. government to be a terrorist organization.
Senators Harry Reid and Dick Durbin - the top two Democrats in the U.S. Senate - and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell all described Israel's actions as understandable. "I think what the Israelis are doing is very important," Reid said. "I think this terrorist organization, Hamas, has got to be put away. They've got to come to their senses."
Said McConnell: "Hamas is a terrorist organization. Imagine in this country (the U.S.) if somebody from a neighboring country were lobbing shells at our population. We'd do exactly the same thing. I think the Israelis are doing the only thing they can possibly do to defend their population."
Hamas-run Gaza has been largely isolated from the rest of the world since the Islamic militants won parliamentary elections in 2006. Then Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, expelling forces loyal to the moderate Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who oversees the West Bank.
A senior U.S. defense official said on the day of the invasion that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was informed in general terms of the ground incursion and its objectives through normal Israeli defense channels. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was referring to confidential U.S.-Israeli contacts Saturday.
The ground invasion and live images of the fighting in Gaza drew international condemnations and dominated news coverage on Arab satellite TV stations, many of which aired footage of wounded Palestinians at hospitals. Hamas threatened to turn Gaza into an Israeli graveyard.
The new fighting brought the death toll in the Gaza Strip to more than 500since December 27, according to Palestinian health officials and UN officials, who say at least 100 civilians are among the dead.
Hundreds of rockets have hit Israel since the offensive began, and four Israelis have been killed. One Israeli soldier has been killed in the ground attack so far.
On Saturday, the Bush administration blamed the onslaught in the Gaza Strip squarely on Hamas militants, but did not mention the invasion by Israeli ground troops and avoided any criticism of Israel despite mounting world outrage over the growing death toll.
A State Department official said Saturday that the U.S. is working toward a cease-fire but provided no details on how this can be accomplished because the U.S. does not talk to Hamas. Spokesman Sean McCormack said a cease-fire is needed that will not allow Hamas to continue firing rockets into Israel.
The comments were made after Israel launched its ground invasion. McCormack said it's obvious the cease-fire should take place as soon as possible, but it has to be sustainable and cannot allow Hamas to continue to launch rockets out of Gaza.
The United States late Saturday blocked approval of a Security Council statement calling for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel and expressing concern at the escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas. U.S. officials said there was little chance Hamas would adhere to the statement, based on the group's earlier response to such calls for a cease-fire.
With time running out on the Bush presidency, the crisis in Gaza is likely to carry over to President-elect Barack Obama. The escalation of fighting in Gaza comes as the Bush administration approaches its final two weeks in office, with Obama scheduled to become president on January 20th.