CAIRO, March 4 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday she planned to tell Israeli officials to ease the humanitarian suffering in the Gaza Strip and avoid attacks that might kill civilians, but she repeatedly refused to say whether she supported a cease-fire.
"Call it what you will, we want the violence to stop," Rice told reporters traveling with her as she headed to the region during some of the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence in years. She asserted that Hamas, which controls Gaza, is trying to disrupt the nascent peace process the Bush administration launched last year in Annapolis.
"First and foremost, Hamas needs to stop firing rockets into Israeli cities," Rice said. At the same time, she said, "Israelis have to be very concerned about the innocent people in Gaza who were caught in this crossfire, and the Israelis need to be very concerned about the humanitarian situation. Those are discussions we're going to have."
Fighting has killed at least 117 Palestinians and three Israelis since Wednesday, prompting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to suspend peace talks, even though his Fatah movement in the West Bank is at odds with Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, Israel in recent months has tightened economic sanctions on Gaza, resulting in shortages of oil, gasoline, medicine and chlorine for drinking water in the narrow coastal strip that holds 1.5 million people. In January, after gunmen destroyed vast sections of the border wall, tens of thousands of Palestinians streamed into Egypt.
Rice said she would talk to the Israelis "about trying to make certain the humanitarian convoys can get into Gaza carrying much-needed humanitarian goods and supplies."
Rice arrived early Tuesday in Cairo, her first stop, where Egyptian officials have tried to put together a deal that includes an Israeli-Hamas cease-fire, Palestinian control of a border crossing into Gaza, European monitoring of that crossing and the return of an Israeli soldier who has been held in Gaza for nearly two years. Rice declined to discuss the cease-fire proposal, and said the idea of restoring Palestinian control to the crossing at Rafah had "some merit" but would be a complex undertaking.
Rice planned to spend four hours in Cairo and then go directly to meetings with Palestinian officials in Ramallah, in the West Bank, before traveling to Jerusalem for talks with Israeli officials.
Rice appeared to be seeking ways to ease Arab anger at Israel's lethal response to the rocket attacks without limiting Israel's ability to attack. At the same time, U.S. officials think that calling for a cease-fire might grant status and legitimacy to Hamas, a radical Islamic group that does not accept the existence of Israel.
U.S. and Israeli officials have no contact with Hamas, complicating any possible negotiation with the group.
Asked whether she was concerned that Hamas could claim a propaganda victory if a cease-fire were to be arranged, Rice replied: "The only thing that Hamas can lay claim to is fomenting instability and violence. . . . If they consider that a victory, then that's what they've done."
During Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which also resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties, Rice was heavily criticized for not supporting a cease-fire until after an errant Israeli bomb killed dozens of civilians. But she rejected any comparisons between the two conflicts, saying they were not similar.
Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and seized control of Gaza last year. The Bush administration has argued that a peace deal between Abbas and Israel would help Abbas overcome the challenge posed by Hamas.
Rice said she planned to tell Palestinian officials that "if the rejectionists are allowed to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, then that is not going to solve the interest of the Palestinian people." She said the negotiations "ought to resume as soon as possible."
Still, Rice acknowledged that neither side had made much progress in meeting initial commitments on such as issues as halting expansion of Jewish settlements and bolstering Palestinian security forces. "There's room for improvement on both sides," she said.