White House defends Israeli airstrikes in Gaza

The White House said there was no evidence Israel is acting disproportionately as it carries out airstrikes in the Gaza Strip despite criticism over civilian casualties.

Israel has launched military operations to stem Hamas rocket attacks.

"No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. "And that's the reason that we support Israel's right to defend itself.

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“We need Hamas to stop launching rockets that are putting Israeli citizens in harm's way," he added.

Israeli bombing has damaged a mosque and a center for the disabled, among other sites, according to media reports. Palestinian health officials estimated that 176 had died in Israeli airstrikes, and the United Nations estimated that 70 percent of those fatalities were civilians.

No Israelis have died despite hundreds of rockets shot into the country, thanks partially to the U.S.-backed Iron Dome rocket defense system.

On Monday, the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works agency suggested Israeli strikes could be running afoul of international law. 

"I urgently call on the Israeli Security Forces to put an end to attacks against, or endangering, civilians and civilian infrastructure which are contrary to international humanitarian law," said Pierre Krahenbuhl.

"In Gaza, risks are compounded by the very high population density,” he continued. “Maximum restraint must be exercised and measures of distinction, proportionality and precaution must be respected to avoid further casualties and overall destabilization.”

Earnest said that while the U.S. supported Israel's right to self-defense, it was "very concerned about those Palestinian civilians who are in harm's way."

"We've been urging Israeli political leaders and Palestinian leaders to do everything necessary to try to safeguard the safety and well-being of civilians on both sides of the border," he said.

Earnest also urged a ceasefire between both sides and said that the U.S. did not want to see a ground invasion of Gaza because it "would put even more civilians at risk."

“This is Israel's decision to make” though, Earnest added, “and Israeli political leaders certainly have the right, even the responsibility, to protect their citizens."

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the strikes, blaming Hamas for any civilian deaths.

“The difference between us is that we're using missile defense to protect our civilians and they're using their civilians to protect their missiles,” Netanyahu told CBS News's "Face the Nation." “So naturally, they're responsible for all the civilian deaths that occur accidentally. 

“We're sorry for any accidental civilian deaths, but it's the Hamas that bears complete responsibility for such civilian causalities,” he said.

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