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Europe Split Over Gaza Ground Operation

As Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza on Saturday, the European Union failed to agree on a common approach to the latest escalation while the US stuck to its position of backing Israel's right to self-defense.

French protesters hold up a poster reading Stop Massacre in Marseille on Jan. 3.

French protesters demand a stop to the massacre in Gaza

The French government late Saturday sharply criticized Israel's military operation in the Gaza Strip, saying it "complicated" peace efforts just hours after the Czech presidency of the European Union said the action was "defensive, not offensive."

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the decision to send ground forces into Gaza after a week of air strikes was a "dangerous military escalation."

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Israel's latest action reinforced the need for an immediate ceasefire. "Unfolding events show the urgent need for the immediate ceasefire that we have called for. The escalation of the conflict will cause alarm and dismay," he said in a statement.

After Israeli tanks entered Gaza, a spokesman for Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told reporters "at the moment from our perspective we do understand that the action is part of the defensive action of Israel (...) we do understand that it is more defensive than offensive."

Europe at odds

Saeb Erekat, aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, responded harshly to the European position expressed by the Czech Republik.

"This is a vicious aggression against our people. The international community cannot stand silent ... This position (by the European Union's Czech presidency) deserves condemnation," he told Al Arabiya television.

The conflicting statements suggested disunity among European partners ahead of separate visits to the region by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday and an EU delegation led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Paris on Jan. 1

French President Nicolas Sarkozy with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Paris on Jan. 1

France, which handed the rotating EU presidency to the Czechs on Jan. 1, has led calls for a ceasefire and hosted a meeting of foreign ministers in Paris on Dec. 30 to reinforce the message.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has also undertaken several unilateral attempts to bring an end to the Mideast conflict. After meeting Thursday in Paris with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, he is due to fly to the Middle East, hoping to rally key players in the region behind a French plan to pressure Israel and Hamas to renew the failed ceasefire.

In a statement released Saturday, the French Foreign Ministry said "the ground attack complicates efforts undertaken by the international community, especially the European Union and France, the members of the (Mideast) Quartet and the countries in the region to end the conflict (and) provide immediate aid to civilians."

Further underlining the impression of European division, a British government source said of the Czech statement: "It is not the position of the British government."

US says Israeli attacks in self-defence

While Europe was split over how to respond to the ground operation and called for a ceasefire, the United States staunchly defended its ally's right to defend itself from militant attacks and placed the blame for the latest escalation on Hamas.

The US State Department said it would seek a ceasefire in that eases the humanitarian crisis for Palestinians while preventing rocket fire directed at Israel. Spokesman Sean McCormack blamed the current conflict on the Islamic militant movement Hamas, which controls the territory, while pointing out that Washington has urged Israel to prevent civilian casualties as it moves forward with a ground offensive.

"We are working toward a ceasefire that would not allow a reestablishment of the status quo ante, where Hamas can continue to launch rockets out of Gaza and to condemn the people of Gaza to a life of misery," McCormack said. "It is obvious that that ceasefire should take place as soon as possible, but we need a ceasefire that is durable, sustainable, and not time limited."

President George W. Bush earlier said the Israeli strikes were in self-defence after Hamas let a six-month ceasefire lapse on December 19 and fired rockets at Israel. He also accused Hamas of putting Palestinian lives at risk by hiding among them.

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