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The White House early Thursday rebuked Israel over its military actions in the Gaza Strip, saying they do not "serve the purposes of peace and security."

"While we believe that Israel has the right to act to defend itself and its citizens, we do not see that its operations in Gaza in the last few days serve the purposes of peace and security," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a written statement.

"They have worsened the humanitarian situation and resulted in confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians, and have not, we believe, enhanced Israel's security," he added.

U.S. President George Bush on Wednesday urged "restraint" by Israel and Palestinians. "I continue to urge restraint," Bush told reporters following a Cabinet meeting in the Roosevelt Room. "It is essential that people respect innocent life in order for us to achieve peace."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said late on Wednesday that Israel`s actions in Gaza would make it more difficult for the U.S. to move the peace process forward.

Powell spoke by telephone to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bureau chief Dov Weisglass and to Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Powell said he planned to also talk to Palestinian leaders.

"Israel has explained it was not a planned act," Powell told reporters at the State Department. "Nevertheless, it does not assist us in trying to move forward."

The United Nations' special human rights envoy for the West Bank and Gaza Strip said Wednesday that the Rafah strikes were war crimes and a violation of humanitarian law, and that the Security Council should consider imposing an arms embargo against Israel just as it had against the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1977.

"These actions constitute...war crimes...They also amount to collective punishment which violates both humanitarian law and international human rights law," said South African law professor John Dugard in a statement.

"The special rapporteur calls on the Security Council to take appropriate action to stop the violence, if necessary by the imposition of a mandatory arms embargo," he added.

The European Union slammed Wednesday's attack as "completely disproportionate" and as showing "a reckless disregard for human life".

In one of his strongest condemnations yet of recent Israeli actions against Palestinians, Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, speaking on behalf of the EU presidency, cited initial reports suggesting many children were among the casualties.

"It is clear that today's action was completely disproportionate to any threat faced by the Israeli military and that Israeli forces showed a reckless disregard for human life," he said in a statement.

"The targeting of innocent children in a conflict of this kind must always be condemned," he said. "The killing of children does not serve any legitimate cause and degrades any purpose which it purports to advance."

Opposition MKs on Wednesday demanded that the IDF immediately suspend its operation in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip following the deadly attack.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia condemned Israeli action in the Gaza Strip and called for a cease-fire, but said the Israeli government showed no desire for peace.

Qureia said, after meeting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Madrid, that "peace needs an immediate cease-fire, needs compliance with United Nations resolutions and needs good intentions from both sides".

"These crimes committed daily against our people... show there exists no desire for peace on the part of this Israeli government," Qureia said.

Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat called the attack as a 'genocide'. "This is a war crime. This is genocide. A crime that has been committed against civilians who were out demonstrating peacefully... What is required is an immediate cessation of the assault, the punishing of those responsible and the sending of international forces," he said Wednesday.

The Knesset was in session when news of the missile strike broke.

Shinui chairman Yosef Lapid described the incident as a human tragedy and political tragedy, caused by the IDF's presence in the Gaza Strip. "Written all over this tragedy is the fact that this situation cannot go on," Lapid said.

MK Mohammed Barakeh (Hadash) termed the Rafah missile strike a "massacre" and called for international intervention.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon should face an international tribunal, MK Azmi Bishara (Balad) said, adding that they should be forced to explain their actions.

MK Ahmed Tibi (Hadash) said that the defense minister, chief of staff and the pilot who fired the missiles should all be put on trial. Tibi got so upset at the news of the events in Rafah, he had to be examined by the Knesset resident doctor.

MK Yuli Tamir (Labor) said that the operation in Rafah should be halted immediately, before it turns into another Lebanon.

Meretz MK Ran Cohen called on the IDF to stop the killing and get out of Rafah.

Fellow Meretz MK, Roman Bronfman said that the army does not discern between protesters and terrorists.

Another Meretz MK, Avshalom Vilan, said the order to fire on the protesters was illegal, while fellow party member Zahava Gal-On said the soldiers should have refused to carry out the order.

MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said the events were "tragic" but one must remember that the Palestinians frequently send civilians into dangerous areas on purpose.

The Palestinian Authority called on the United Nations Security Council to take sanctions against Israel, and to decide on measures against Israel in Wednesday evening's session to discuss three resolutions calling on Israel to halt the operation.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the Rafah operation "unacceptable and wrong" while Moscow slammed what it called a "disproportionate use of force."