Marking the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding, US President George W. Bush yesterday criticized the deadly tactics of extremist groups and denounced anti-Semitism, especially by those who want to wipe the nation "off the map."
“We believe that religious liberty is fundamental to civilized society, so we condemn anti-Semitism in all forms whether by those who openly question Israel’s right to exist, or by others who quietly excuse them,” Bush said.
In a speech to the Knesset, or parliament, Bush said that the US had an unbreakable bond with Israel. He said Americans believe that Israel has a right to defend itself from extremists and “killers pledged to its destruction.”
“Some people suggest that if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away,” Bush said. “This is a tired argument that buys into the propaganda of the enemies of peace and America utterly rejects it. Israel’s population may be just over 7 million. But when you confront terror and evil, you are 307 million strong, because the United States of America stands with you.”
Bush’s five-day journey to the Middle East, which was to take him to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, represents another effort to push peace talks forward as his time in office winds down. Israel and the Palestinians hope to reach an agreement before Bush leaves office next January.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who spoke before Bush, said his nation was ready for peace and that he is working on the US vision of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Olmert said he is committed to carrying out Bush’s vision of forming an independent Palestinian state next to Israel. And when a deal is reached, Olmert says the divided parliament and Israeli public will rally behind it.
“When the day comes for a historic peace agreement between us and our Palestinian neighbors. It will be brought to the approval of this house,” Olmert said.
A rocket fired from Gaza exploded in a shopping center in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Wednesday, wounding at least 14 people, rescue officials said, just as Olmert was discussing the violence with Bush and threatening large-scale retaliation.
The rocket ripped through the roof of the mall, causing a large chunk of the roof to collapse in a huge pile of rubble and twisted metal, hitting a clinic. Four windows were blown out of the side of the building.
By hitting a crowded shopping center in a major Israeli city just as Bush was in the country, Gaza militants significantly increased the likelihood that Israel’s army chief would carry out his newly expressed desire to send large numbers of ground forces into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Late on Wednesday, Israeli aircraft fired twice at a group of Hamas militants in Gaza City, killing two and wounding five, Hamas officials and witnesses said. The airstrikes hit the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City, a militant stronghold near the Israeli border.
A hospital official said a woman and her young daughter were seriously wounded, along with another child. Another woman was seriously wounded, and several other people were slightly wounded, said the official, Leah Malul of Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon.