WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama on Monday welcomed Egypt's proposal for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, saying he hoped it could restore calm.
At an Iftar dinner marking the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan, Obama also said Israel had a right to defend itself against "inexcusable" rocket attacks but described the deaths of Palestinian civilians in the conflict as a "tragedy." Obama spoke after Egypt said a ceasefire should start on Tuesday and that it was willing to host high-level Israeli and Palestinian delegations for talks after a truce went into effect.
Obama said Washington's priority was to restore a 2012 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas after a previous explosion of violence.
"We are encouraged that Egypt has made a proposal to accomplish this goal that we hope can restore the calm that we are seeking," Obama said in the State Dining Room of the White House.
"The pictures that we are seeing in Gaza and in Israel are heart-wrenching," he added.
"I will say very clearly, no country can accept rockets fired indiscriminately at civilians. We have been very clear - Israel has a right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas." "At the same time ... the death and injury of Palestinian civilians is a tragedy, which is why we have emphasised the need to protect civilians regardless of who they are or where they live."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said US Secretary of State John Kerry has been "deeply engaged in conversations" with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egyptian officials and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on the crisis.
A senior State Department official meanwhile said that, since Saturday, Kerry had talked to Netanyahu four times, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Qatar twice and the foreign ministers of Turkey and Jordan once each.
At least 186 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip as the conflict entered its eighth day.
Israel says its air strikes are in response to Hamas rocket fire on its cities, which have mostly been blown out of the sky by Israeli interceptor missiles without causing any deaths.
Obama also used the Iftar dinner to bemoan the "particularly difficult" times in the Middle East, including the "brutality" of President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria and reiterated the need for a new government that can unite Iraqis to face the challenge from Sunni extremists.
The event went ahead despite calls by some Arab activists for a boycott over US support for Israel and alleged domestic surveillance of Muslims.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) called on other Arab groups in the United States to boycott the dinner to protest against "the current slaughter of Palestinians in Palestine and the spying of American Arabs and Muslims domestically." "In the government's silence, Israel is committing a massacre in Palestine with the possibility of an all-out ground assault," the ADC said in a statement.
"As this humanitarian crisis continues abroad, we do not believe it is appropriate to attend Iftar dinners sponsored by government agencies while lives are being lost," the statement said.
Keith Ellison, a Muslim member of Congress, issued a statement saying that a boycott "will not close Guantanamo Bay, guarantee a cease-fire between Israel and Palestine or undo the NSA's targeting of Muslims." "If the boycott was successful and no Muslims showed up, then no one would talk about the issues on behalf of our community," he said.
Earlier, the White House warned Monday that a ground invasion of Gaza amid an Israeli offensive designed to halt Hamas rocket attacks, would not be a good idea because it would expose civilians to even greater risk.
But the Obama administration stopped short of criticising Israel over the Palestinian civilian toll, and called on Hamas to halt rocket attacks.