WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that Israel did not seek U.S. approval before a ground invasion against Hamas in the bloodiest Mideast clash in years.
From the White House to Capitol Hill, U.S. officials remained firmly behind Israel. They urged a cease-fire, but put the onus on Hamas, as Israeli troops and tanks cut through the coastal Gaza strip. U.S. lawmakers defended Israel's ground incursion as a justifiable response to Hamas rocket fire on Israel.
Cheney said Israel "didn't seek clearance or approval from us, certainly" before thousands of soldiers pushed into Gaza after nightfall on Saturday.
He did not directly answer whether Israel informed its powerful ally, the U.S., of its plans before launching them. But the ground offensive, which followed a week of punishing aerial raids on Hamas, had been expected as Israeli forces mounted near the border.
"They have said, now, for a period of months _ they told me on my last trip over there _ that they didn't want to have to act, where Gaza was concerned," Cheney said. "They had gotten out of there three years ago. But if the rocketing didn't stop, they felt they had no choice but to take action. And if they did, they would be very aggressive, in terms of trying to take down Hamas. And that's exactly what's happened."
U.S. leaders have carefully noted the consequences of a new war, including a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the death of civilians there. But they point blame one-sidedly on Hamas, which has called for the destruction of Israel and is deemed by the U.S. government to be a terrorist organization.
Sens. Harry Reid and Dick Durbin _ the top two Democrats in the chamber _ and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell all described Israel's actions as understandable. "I think what the Israelis are doing is very important," Reid said. "I think this terrorist organization, Hamas, has got to be put away. They've got to come to their senses."
Said McConnell: "Hamas is a terrorist organization. Imagine in this country (the U.S.) if somebody from a neighboring country were lobbing shells at our population. We'd do exactly the same thing. I think the Israelis are doing the only thing they can possibly do to defend their population."
The Gaza crisis forced Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel a long-planned trip to China this week. Rice has been making a stream of phone calls to allies in the Mideast and Europe in hopes of fostering a cease-fire in Gaza, but has no plans to visit the Mideast as part of that effort. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will travel to Beijing on Wednesday in Rice's place to honor 30 years of U.S-China diplomatic ties, the State Department announced Sunday.
Hamas-run Gaza has been largely isolated from the rest of the world since the Islamic militants won parliamentary elections in 2006. Then Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, expelling forces loyal to the moderate Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who oversees the West Bank.
A senior U.S. defense official said on the day of the invasion that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was informed in general terms of the ground incursion and its objectives through normal Israeli defense channels. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was referring to confidential U.S.-Israeli contacts Saturday.
The ground invasion and live images of the fighting in Gaza drew international condemnations and dominated news coverage on Arab satellite TV stations, many of which aired footage of wounded Palestinians at hospitals. Hamas threatened to turn Gaza into an Israeli "graveyard."
The new fighting brought the death toll in the Gaza Strip to more than 500 since Dec. 27, according to Palestinian health officials and U.N. officials, who say at least 100 civilians are among the dead.
Cheney spoke on CBS' "Face the Nation," while Reid was on NBC's "Meet the Press" and McConnell and Durbin were on "This Week" on ABC.