The United Nations Security Council called early on Sunday for an immediate end to all violence in Gaza after the death toll climbed past 270 on the second day of Israeli air strikes in retaliation for rocket and mortar fire by Gaza militants.
The statement, agreed upon after four hours of closed-door council discussions, called on all parties to address "the serious humanitarian and economic needs in Gaza."
It urged them to take necessary measures, including the opening of border crossings, to ensure Gaza's people were supplied with food, fuel and medical treatment. Israel has been restricting the amount of supplies that have been allowed in.
Council members "stressed the need for the restoration of calm in full" - a reference to a six-month cease-fire ended by Hamas a week ago - to open the way for a Palestinian-Israeli political solution.
Diplomats from several countries said they had preferred a cautiously worded statement on which all 15 council members could agree to a public debate where they would have clashed angrily over who was to blame for the Gaza violence.
"We have had over the years many occasions when we had long meetings of the Security Council, strong statements were made and they did not affect anything," Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said. "Our hope and our expectation is that this modest... press statement is going to have an impact."
But within minutes of the statement being issued diplomats gave conflicting interpretations of it.
Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour said it was clearly aimed at Israel. He told reporters Palestinians would now be waiting to see if Israel stopped its "aggression."
If Israel did not do so within 24 or 48 hours, he said, "We, the Arab nations and our friends ... will come back knocking on the door of the Security Council in order to bring Israel into compliance."
But U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the "way forward" was for the Gaza militants to stop rocket attacks on Israel.
"Clearly in that context Israel has the right of self-defense and nothing in this press statement should be read as anything but that," he told journalists.
Israeli Ambassador Gabriela Shalev said Israel would "wait and see if Hamas is really going to abide by the ... statement of the Security Council and we'll draw the conclusions," but did not make clear whether Israel would halt its offensive.
Israel "did not think it was so urgent for the Security Council after not being involved in the situation for such a long time to rush and call for the end of an operation which is taking place in order to protect our citizens," she said.
The UN held emergency consultations Saturday night and early Sunday on the Israeli bombings in Hamas-ruled Gaza and debated whether to adopt a statement urging Israel to halt its military operations without delay.
Libya, on behalf of the Arab Group of nations at the UN, called the late night council meeting after Israeli warplanes rained more than 100 tons of bombs on security sites in Gaza on Saturday and early Sunday.
"There is no justification for this whatsoever," Mansour, the Palestinian UN observer, told reporters before the council began its closed-door consultations. "This collective punishment is inhumane, immoral and should be stopped immediately. There is no justification for punishing 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza because of the actions of a few."
"The Security Council should demand that this be stopped immediately," Mansour said. Libyan diplomats were pressing for an open council meeting and adoption of a presidential statement, which must be agreed by all 15 council members and becomes part of the official council record.
But there appeared to be reluctance among some members to hold an open meeting because of concerns of inflaming the situation.
Instead, Russia circulated a proposed press statement, which is less important than a presidential statement because it does not become part of the council's official record, but still reflects the views of the UN's most powerful body.
The Russian draft expresses serious concern at the escalation of the situation in Gaza, stresses the need for the restoration of calm, and calls for an immediate opening of the border crossings into Gaza and for an unrestricted humanitarian access in the area, including supplies of food, fuel and provision of medical treatment.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday did permit the borders to be partially opened to let in medical supply and basic humanitarian aid, Israel Radio reported.
The Arabs proposed a number of amendments to the Russian text, including urging Israel to halt its military operations immediately, stressing the numerous Palestinian deaths, especially among civilians as well as the destruction of property.
Earlier Saturday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep alarm at the violence and bloodshed in Gaza and condemned Israel's excessive use of force leading to the death and injury of civilians.
He also expressed deep alarm at the continuing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants in southern Israel and expressed deep distress that repeated calls on Hamas for these attacks to end have gone unheeded, UN deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
"He appeals for an immediate halt to all violence," she said.
During the day, the UN said Ban made calls about the escalating violence to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the presidents of Egypt and Turkey, the foreign ministers of Russia and Britain, the head of the Arab League and the European Union's foreign policy chief.
Rice: Hamas to blame for renewal of Gaza violence
The Arab League also scheduled an emergency meeting late Saturday to discuss the situation in Gaza. But the U.S., Israel's closest ally, blamed Hamas.
"These people are nothing but thugs, so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas that indiscriminately kill their own people," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday said that the United States hold Hamas responsible for the renewal of violence in the Gaza Strip. Nearly 230 Palestinians and one Israeli have been killed since the fighting began on Saturday morning,
Rice briefed President-Elect Barack Obama, who is on holiday vacations with his family in Hawaii, on the situation in Gaza. President George W. Bush has spoken to regional leaders and the administration will remain in close contact, the White House said in a statement.
Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard also blamed Hamas for the breakdown in calm, saying: "Clearly, we are calling on Hamas and other militants to cease shelling southern Israel. Obviously they have broken the cease-fire and engaged in an act of aggression against Israel. Israel has responded. We are echoing the calls from around the world for parties to move back to a ceasefire."
Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement denouncing the violence and calling on both sides to show restraint.
"China expresses serious concern about the escalation of the tense situation in Gaza, denounces actions that cause injuries and deaths to ordinary people, opposes the use of military force in resolving disputes, appeals to related parties to exercise maximum restraint and to settle differences through dialogue," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang in a statement posted on the ministry's website.
Indonesia accused Israel of breaching the terms of the Annapolis accord drafted in late 2007 and called on it to cease attacking Gaza.
"The Indonesian government is deeply upset by the deaths of about 150 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip caused by the Israeli missile attacks. The Indonesian government condemns the attack and calls for Israel to end the use of violence in the Gaza Strip because this will prompt new tensions, while, on the other side, the attack is an abuse of the Annapolis agreement which had been negotiated," Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said in an official statement carried by the Jakarta Post newspaper.
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