Obama backs Israeli strikes against Hamas

President Obama offered support for Israeli strikes against Hamas in a phone call Wednesday night to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Obama urged Netanyahu to avoid civilian casualties with the strikes, but emphasized U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, according to a White House readout of the call. 

The two agreed that Hamas needs to stop its attacks on Israel to allow the situation to de-escalate, a release from the White House said.

The strikes by Israel on Gaza have set off protests in Egypt, as well as warnings of escalating violence. One of the airstrikes killed Hamas's military chief. 

Israel launched the attacks following a recent uptick in rockets fired into Israeli territory. 

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Obama also spoke with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. During that call, the White House said Obama condemned the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and reiterated Israel’s right to self-defense. 

Netanyahu thanked Obama for his support, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports.

The growing violence presents another foreign-policy challenge for Obama as he faces congressional anger over the September attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and questions about his administration’s handling of an FBI investigation that led to the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus last week over an extramarital affair.

The State Department also issued a statement Wednesday strongly condemning the rocket fire and supporting Israel's response.

“We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel.

"We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” Toner added. “Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel on a near-daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self-determination.”

The Mission of Israel to the United Nations immediately re-tweeted the statement as a sign of U.S. support. The country said it had been hit by more than 115 rockets from Gaza in the past week.

The Obama administration also reached out to Morsi in an effort to keep the conflict from intensifying, after the Muslim Brotherhood leader recalled Egypt's ambassador to Israel in protest over the strike.

Obama spoke with Morsi on Wednesday and reiterated Israel’s right to self-defense during the call, according to the White House. "The two leaders agreed on the importance of working to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible and agreed to stay in close touch in the days ahead," said a readout of the conversation.

The Egyptian ambassador’s withdrawal threatens to shake Israel’s already rocky relationship with its Arab neighbor.

Israel’s military operation continued into its second day on Thursday, as Hamas hit back with continued rocket attacks, with multiple casualties reported on both sides.

Hamas's militant wing said Wednesday that Israel had “opened the gates of hell” with its assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, vowing retaliation.

In a televised message to the nation, Netanyahu said the country “delivered a clear message to Hamas and other terrorist groups.” He left open the possibility that Israel could send in troops. The Israeli Navy is already involved.

“If there is a need,” he said, “the Israeli military is ready to broaden the operation.”

This story was first posted on Nov. 14 at 5:40 p.m. and was last updated at 9:23 a.m.

Alicia M. Cohn contributed.