Bush vows to support Israel against 'terror'


JERUSALEM: May 15, 2008. (AFP) Visiting US President George W. Bush vowed on Thursday to support Israel in battling "terror" groups, a day after a rocket fired from Gaza wounded 14 people and triggered warnings of retaliation.

"America stands with you in breaking up terrorist networks and denying the extremists sanctuary," Bush said in remarks prepared for delivery to the Israeli parliament. Bush is in Israel at the start of a five-day tour of the region to try to advance peace negotiations and mark the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish state, an event the Palestinians regard as a "catastrophe. " He underlined the strong ties between the United States and Israel, saying their alliance is "unbreakable." "Israel's population may be just over seven million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because America stands with you." And he warned that allowing archfoe Iran -- whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said the Jewish state should be wiped off the map -- to obtain nuclear weapons would be "an unforgivable betrayal of future generations." Since his arrival on Wednesday, Bush has hailed Israel as a thriving democracy threatened by regional adversaries and their armed proxies. "We consider it a source of shame that the United Nations routinely passes more human rights resolutions against the freest democracy in the Middle East than any other nation in the world," he said. He was to deliver his address to parliament one day after a rocket fired by Gaza militants slammed into a crowded mall in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, wounding 14 people. On Thursday, Bush visited the ruins of the Masada desert fortress, which Israelis consider emblematic of heroic resistance because Jews besieged in the hilltop position chose to kill themselves rather than surrender to the Romans during a rebellion in 70 AD. The US president called the monument "an inspiring monument to courage and sacrifice," in the text of his Knesset address and vowed that "Masada shall never fall again" -- a reference to an oath sworn by Israeli soldiers. Bush hopes to give impetus to peace talks during his visit, but the timing of his trip has angered Palestinians who mark Israel's 60 years on Thursday by remembering the 1948 exodus of some 760,000 Arabs after the birth of the state. Palestinians planned several commemorations of what they call the Naqba, or "catastrophe," including mass rallies in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank. In his prepared remarks to the Knesset, Bush talked only in broad terms about the Middle East peace process he helped to relaunch in November. But he said he hoped that by Israel's 120th anniversary the Palestinians "will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved - a democratic state that is governed by law, respects human rights, and rejects terror." Bush's visit comes amid renewed turmoil in the region, which bodes ill for the negotiations, which have made little tangible progress. Following talks with Bush on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stressed that Israel would hold Hamas responsible for any attack from Gaza and will "take the necessary steps so that this will stop." Two smaller Palestinian armed groups claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack, but Israel says Hamas is to blame since it controls Gaza, where the Islamists ousted troops loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in June. Israel has carried out repeated military operations against Gaza in a bid to halt the almost daily rocket fire from the impoverished sliver of land. Israel and Palestinian militants have talked separately to Egyptian mediators about a possible truce in Gaza, but Hamas rejected Israel's demand that it free an Israeli soldier captured almost two years ago. After Wednesday's attack Israel launched an air strike east of Gaza City in which two Hamas militants were killed and four wounded, after operations earlier in the day killed four people, including three militants, medics said. Several ministers on Thursday called for tough action against Hamas and said Israeli troops were ready for combat. "The Israeli army has never been this ready to launch a large-scale operation in Gaza," said Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of Israel's security cabinet. "It may be that we have no choice but to destroy all the nests of terror. Apparently we'll have no choice," he told public radio.

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