The United States on Tuesday stepped up pressure on Israel to curb the intensity of retaliatory attacks on Palestinian targets, and renewed pleas for both sides to show restraint as nearly two months of deadly violence in the West Bank and Gaza continued.
In addition, Washington urged Egypt to send back to Israel its ambassador who Cairo recalled in protest at fierce punitive raids launched Monday by Israeli helicopters in Gaza City and other towns in the Gaza Strip.
"I understand that emotions are running very high in the region," White House spokesman Jake Siewert said.
"At the same time, it's now more critical than ever for those in the region who are committed to peace to remain engaged despite the difficulties and all the differences," he said, echoing remarks from the State Department and by Pentagon officials travelling with defense secretary William Cohen.
"This is the time to stay engaged, not to disengage," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said as Cohen arrived in Cairo. "Egypt has been a crucial force in the peace process and we assume it will remain so."
The recall of the Egyptian envoy followed Israeli attacks in retaliation for an attack on a bus carrying Jewish settler schoolchildren in the Gaza Strip that killed two Israelis and injured nine others.
Siewert and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher repeated US condemnations of the bus attack and demands that the Palestinian leadership also denounce it.
"The attack on a bus filled with school children is heinous and reprehensible," Boucher told reporters.
"We're pressuring the Palestinians to, first of all, condemn this horrible attack and second of all, do everything they can to stop the violence and restore calm," he said.
"As we do this, we think that it's important to the Israelis to keep in mind that excessive force is not the right way to go at this point," Boucher said, ratcheting up Washington's rhetoric as it pertains to Israel's role.
Boucher added to the State Department's repeated calls for restraint on both sides, the observation that Israel's use of helicopter gunships to attack Palestinian targets, including those in civilian areas, troubled Washington.
"We're concerned about the amount of firepower that is being used on these occasions, particularly when it occurs in civilian areas and therefore results in civilian casualties," he said.
Asked why he had decided to remark on Israel's "amount of firepower," Boucher replied: "Because we're against excessive force."
He said the United States had no evidence to confirm accusations from Israel officials that the "Palestinian military establishment" was behind the bus attack.
The spokesman also said Washington opposed Israel's blockade on Palestinian towns, moved that have drawn heavy criticism from the Palestinians who say it has strangled them economically.
"Basically we don't believe that squeezing the Palestinians economically is the right course of action," Boucher said.
On a related matter, he defended the issuance by the State Department of a travel warning, advising Americans not to travel to Israel or the Palestinian territories due to the ongoing violence that has now left almost 260 people, mostly Palestinians, dead since it began on September 28.
Israeli officials and tour operators have complained that the advisory is unnecessary because violence is not affecting tourist sites and that tour cancellations are damaging their businesses.
"We don't make these decisions lightly, but we have an obligation to American citizens to offer them our best advice on travel," Boucher said.
"We don't do this for or against any particular tourism industry ... but in cases where we think that there is a danger for US citizens, we have an obligation to our citizens to tell them about it." – WASHINGTON (AFP)
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