Israel Gears Up For Possible Gaza Ground War, With Obama Backing 'Right To Defend'

Israeli tanks are stationed at the Israeli-Gaza Strip border on November 16, 2012. Israeli officials said the Jewish state wa
Israeli tanks are stationed at the Israeli-Gaza Strip border on November 16, 2012. Israeli officials said the Jewish state was preparing to launch its first ground offensive in four years into the Gaza Strip and the army started calling up 16,000 reservists. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- In the first major test of his post-reelection relationship with Israel, President Barack Obama and his administration have offered full-throated support for the sometimes-caustic ally as it prepares for a possible ground invasion of the tightly controlled Gaza Strip.

In his second phone call with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, since the conflict began, Obama backed "Israel’s right to defend itself," while expressing "regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives," according to a statement from the White House late Friday.

For three days, Israel has launched airstrikes into Gaza, a 20-mile stretch of land ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, in an attempt to quell a barrage of rocket fire landing in and around population centers in southern Israel. More than 1,000 rockets from Gaza have hit Israel this year, with civilian casualties in the single digits.

The latest escalation, which started with the targeted assassination of the leader of Hamas's militant wing -- a video of which was later posted on YouTube by the Israel Defense Forces -- has led to a spike in rocket fire in both directions. Israel has begun staging troops and tanks on the borders of Gaza, threatening to move in.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a statement Friday announced by his spokesman, Martin Nesirky, pleaded for "all concerned to do everything under their command to stop this dangerous escalation and restore calm."

"Rocket attacks are unacceptable and must stop at once," Nesirky told reporters. "Israel must exercise maximum restraint.”

But messages from the U.S. have been unequivocal in support of Israel's actions.

"There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel," said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, in the Obama administration's first public remarks on the conflict Wednesday. "We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties."

The next day, Toner added that "the onus is on Hamas" to draw down the conflict, and decried the militant group's "cowardly acts" as having "no justification."

And on Capitol Hill, members of Congress have joined in a rare show of bipartisanship to unanimously pass resolutions in both houses that condemn Hamas and assert Israel's “inherent right to self-defense."

"Some people in the Middle East may have thought, 'Oh, is the president going to pay back Bibi Netanyahu for the perception that he supported his opponent in the election?'" said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank in Washington. "It's very important throughout the region to see this level of support."

So far, the Obama administration has avoided commenting on the possibility of a ground war. Some in Israel have interpreted this silence as an implicit approval.

"Israel has received just unequivocal and outstanding support from the United States and all branches of the government, from the White House to Congress, in both parties, bipartisan support," said Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, in a video interview with Ha'aretz's Natasha Mozgovaya on Friday.

Asked if this included a "green light" for a ground invasion, Oren responded, "The United States has given us full backing to take whatever measures are necessary to defend our citizens against Hamas terror."

"We're not going to talk about hypotheticals," an Obama administration official told HuffPost in response to a question about a possible ground invasion. "Every statement you will see from us calls for de-escalation of the situation. That's what we're seeking and supporting and working hard to achieve: de-escalation and a peaceful resolution."

In early 2009, a ground war in Gaza left some 1,400 Palestinians dead, the vast majority civilians, in a conflict that was similarly intended to stop rockets from being fired from the region. Thirteen Israelis were also killed.

That war stretched three weeks, but left Israel in a state of diplomatic disarray over the disproportionality of force, and especially after an international investigation -- later retracted -- concluded that some Israeli soldiers had committed war crimes.

Concerns about a repeat have left some outside experts anxiously watching the growing tensions.

"Cooler heads ought to prevail," wrote Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator now at the Woodrow WIlson International Center, in a CNN column. "Egypt should press Hamas to control the jihadis and to reimpose a truce -- perhaps in exchange for a more open border with Gaza and greater political support from Turkey and Qatar, and the U.S. should urge restraint on Israel to allow Hamas to stand down."

But, Miller went on, "This is the Middle East, where movies don't usually have happy endings."

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