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Bush administration condemns Israeli attack

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WASHINGTON, April 17 (JTA) – Condemning Israel’s reoccupation of a piece of the Gaza Strip, the United States has resorted to its strongest criticism of Israel since Mideast violence erupted last fall.

Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday acknowledged that Israeli actions “were precipitated by the provocative Palestinian mortar attacks on Israel,” but said that “the Israeli response was excessive and disproportionate.”

Powell urged “both sides to respect the agreements that they’ve signed.”

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Israel should “fully withdraw” from the Gaza Strip, as it quickly began to do. He also called on the Palestinians to renounce terrorism and “exercise control over all elements” of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority.

State Department officials said Boucher’s statement was not meant to excuse the Palestinian Authority from controlling Hamas and other groups that operate from P.A.-ruled territory but are not formally part of the Palestinian Authority or the PLO.

Only hours after the U.S. criticism, a senior Israeli official said Israel would pull its troops out of the Gaza Strip overnight, according to an Associated Press report.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the State Department’s comments an “unwarranted overreaction.”

“Palestinian mortar attacks against an Israeli town in the Negev Desert introduced a new dimension into the seven-month-long period of violence,” Foxman said. “Israel, which has the responsibility to protect its citizens, had no choice but to demonstrate that the Palestinian’s escalation of hostilities into Israel proper will not be tolerated.”

Other Jewish organizations were less critical, saying they understand that the Bush administration feels constrained to issue tough comments on Israel in order to win Arab support for America’s Iraq policy.

State Department officials said they are familiar with the sequence of events and understand that Israel’s entry into Gaza was provoked by Palestinian mortar attacks on an Israeli town. Still, the officials said, both sides went too far in the past several days.

“The situation is threatening to escalate further, posing the risk of a broader conflict,” Powell said. He noted that “there can be no military solution to this conflict.”

State Department officials said they have seen four “deeply troubling events” in recent days, beginning with a cross-border attack by Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon that killed an Israeli soldier. Israel, which holds Lebanese master Syria responsible for controlling Hezbollah, responded with an attack on a Syrian radar site in Lebanon, reportedly killing three soldiers.

This was followed by the Palestinian mortar attacks and the Israeli response, which was a combined land, sea and air attack that divided Gaza into three zones.

The State Department criticism, echoed by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, is a break from the Bush White House’s usual language on Israel. Previously, the administration sought to be “even-handed,” but was cautious not to chastise Israeli actions too strongly.

However, U.S. officials noted that they have been critical of Israel’s use of allegedly excessive force, its policy of “targeted killings” and its recent incursions into areas under P.A. control.

U.S. administration officials were quick to explain that the statement does not mean that they are questioning Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s willingness to participate in peace talks, but said they are concerned about Israel’s current strategy.

“What’s going on now, the latest attacks, raises the question of Israel’s commitment to the written agreements,” a State Department spokesman said.

The United States has been active in recent days getting Israeli and Palestinian security officials together for talks.

While State Department officials refrain from calling the United States a mediator, talks have taken place several times at the home of the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk.

The Palestinians canceled talks scheduled for Monday night, but the United States has been trying to convince the two sides to sit down together about once a week.

“There’s a limit to what we can do with this level of escalation,” a department spokesman said. “There has to be a small amount of calm restored.”

Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Walker is in the Middle East to discuss policy toward Iraq. But the State Department is considering having him meet with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership – probably separately, a spokesman said.

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