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US Presses Israel to Expand Humanitarian Access to Gaza

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See the Gaza-Israel Conflict Timeline here  The United States said it is pressing Israel to expand the terms of its temporary cease-fires in Gaza to allow greater access for humanitarian aid to the besieged area.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is continuing to lead U.S. cease-fire diplomacy in New York.

Officials are not joining United Nations and International Red Cross officials in criticizing Israel's handling of its so-called "humanitarian corridor" into Gaza.  But they said the United States is pressing Israel diplomatically to expand the timing and scope of what it said will be three-hour humanitarian cease-fires every other day.

State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said the "dire" humanitarian situation in Gaza has been a key issue for Secretary Rice - along with cease-fire efforts -  in diplomacy this week on the sidelines of the U.N. Security Council in New York.

"One of the other things the Secretary is working very hard on is to try to, with her counterparts, to build on that humanitarian corridor that the Israelis agreed to open. We think its needs to be opened further. We think the hours need to be increased. This is something we are working with the Israelis and others on. Again I remind you it is a conflict zone. It's a very difficult situation. We obviously believe the humanitarian situation to be a dire one," said Wood.

Rice went to New York Tuesday for what were to have several hours of diplomatic consultations on the Gaza crisis but has remained there in intensive talks with Arab and European counterparts on what the United States hopes will be U.N. action for a durable and sustained cease-fire.

Spokesman Wood said a successful outcome would not necessarily involve a formal Security Council resolution.

"It could be that we are able to reach some kind of agreement on a resolution. I don't know. Could be a [Security Council] presidential statement. We are obviously supporting the Mubarak initiative. What I am saying to you is that it really doesn't matter what form it come in. What's important here is that we bring about an effective solution to ending this conflict," he said.

U.S. officials have said any measure restoring a Gaza truce should end Hamas rocket firing into Israel, deal with weapons smuggling to Hamas through tunnels from Egypt, and reopen access to Gaza from Israel and Egypt to address humanitarian needs and revive the area's economy.

Wood said in addition to her New York meetings, Rice has had at least 10 telephone conversations in the last 24 hours with Israeli officials including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and had discussed, among other things, rocket firing early Thursday from Lebanon into northern Israel.

Wood condemned the rocketing and said Israel, which reportedly responded with some mortar fire, had shown restraint thus far.

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