Obama: Israel should 'minimize' casualties

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President Obama spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday and said he was “deeply concerned” about the risk of further escalation, given Israel’s operation in Gaza.

Obama offered support for Israel’s right to defend itself but said he told Netanyahu he hoped Israel would work to minimize civilian casualties as it pushed a ground offensive. The president said the there was an “understanding” that the ground operation was limited to close smuggling tunnels used to ferry supplies and weapons into Gaza.

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“We are hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this process in a way that minimizes civilian casualties,” Obama said at a press conference on the downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane over eastern Ukraine.

“I also made clear that the United States and our friends and allies are deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life,” the president said.

Obama said U.S. diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, were “working hard” to convince Hamas to join a cease-fire agreement offered by Egypt. Hamas has rejected the proposal, saying it does little to address its concerns over blockades restricting the flow of supplies into Gaza.

The president also said Kerry was prepared to travel to the region toward that effort “following additional consultations” with international partners.

In a phone call Thursday night, Kerry urged Netanyahu to limit the scope of the ground invasion.

“The Secretary reaffirmed our strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist threats emanating from tunnels into Israel and expressed our view that this should be a precise operation to target tunnels, as described in a statement from the Israeli Defense Forces,” the State Department said in a statement.

The calls from Obama and Kerry represented the strongest caution yet from the U.S. in the nearly two-week-old conflict. The U.S. had previously said it hoped Netanyahu could avoid mounting any sort of ground offensive.

Netanyahu in a statement Thursday said the ground offensive was prompted by Hamas and other militant groups rejecting an Egyptian cease-fire proposal and continuing to shell Israeli civilians.

So far, fighting between the sides has left at least one Israeli and some 235 Palestinians dead, according to multiple media reports.