CAIRO (AFP) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice kicked off a Middle East tour on Tuesday pushing for a resumption of peace talks thrown into jeopardy by an explosion of violence in the Gaza Strip.
Rice laid the blame for the bloodshed on the Islamist movement Hamas which controls the Gaza Strip, where more than 120 Palestinians have been killed in blistering Israeli strikes in less than a week.
She arrived in Cairo voicing confidence in the chances of success for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which was revived at a US conference in Annapolis in November after a near seven-year break.
"I continue to believe that they can get to a deal by the end of the year," Rice said in the plane taking her to Egypt. "The Annapolis process is hardly underway. We are three months into trying to resolve conflict that has been going on for 50 years."
Rice refrained from criticizing Israel over the Gaza offensive, which killed women and children as well as militants, and called for a halt to rocket fire by Hamas militants in the coastal enclave.
"I understand Israel's need to defend itself and the rocket attacks need to stop," said Rice, who later heads to Ramallah and Jerusalem for talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
But the assault, which ended on Monday when Israel withdrew its troops, drew international condemnation and caused moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to sever all contacts with the Israelis, although on Monday he reiterated his willingness to seek a truce.
Rice appealed for peace talks to resume, recalling that Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed in Annapolis to lay down the framework for a future Palestinian state by the end of US President George W. Bush's mandate in January 2009.
"I do think that the negotiations ought to resume as soon as possible... the longer the negotiations are not ongoing or the longer they are suspended, if that is what one wants to call it, the more it is a victory for those who do not want to see a two-state solution."
In Cairo, Rice met Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and was due to hold talks with President Hosni Mubarak and intelligence supremo Omar Suleiman, who on Monday cancelled a trip to Israel in protest at the Gaza incursion.
Egypt, which has the only border with the Gaza Strip that does not pass via Israel, has been a key mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians but has also been accused of turning a blind eye to weapons smuggling into Gaza.
Gaza militants in January blew up the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the impoverished territory, allowing hundreds of thousands to replenish depleted stocks in the face of a punishing Israeli blockade.
Since a dramatic escalation in violence last Wednesday, at least 123 Palestinians, including 22 children and dozens of militants, have been killed. More than 350 were wounded.
Two Israeli soldiers were also killed in the clashes and one Israeli civilian died in a rocket attack launched by Gaza militants.
Despite the withdrawal of ground troops on Monday, the violence in Gaza continued, with Israeli warplanes carrying out two raids on the territory on Tuesday, killing two Palestinians and wounding two others.
A military spokesman in Tel Aviv said the air force had "attacked a group of terrorists who were preparing to fire rockets at Israel."
Rice said she was concerned about what was happening in Gaza, but insisted that Hamas "is doing what might be expected, which is using attacks, rocket attacks on Israel to try to arrest a peace process in which they have nothing to gain."
She asked the Israelis to allow the resumption of humanitarian aid into Gaza, saying: "One, again, has to think in carrying out military operations, about the day after."
Israel launched the operation on Saturday in a bid to stop near-daily rocket fire from Gaza, where Hamas -- which is sworn to Israel's destruction -- seized power in June by routing pro-Abbas forces.
But as has been the case with previous Israeli operations, this one failed to halt the rocket fire -- two projectiles fell in the coastal city of Ashkelon on Monday, slightly wounding one woman.
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