Pope Benedict XVI has called a cease-fire in Gaza indispensable to restore acceptable living conditions to the population.  

In his "state of the world' address to members of the Vatican's diplomatic corps, Pope Benedict condemned the violence by both sides in Gaza, a day after one of his senior aides angered Jews by calling the strip "a big concentration camp."

Addressing diplomats from more than 170 countries in French, the pope called for a ceasefire in the recent fighting which, he said, is causing enormous suffering to the civilian population.

He urged a return to peace negotiations, saying the military option is not a solution and violence must be firmly condemned.

Benedict also called for "the rejection of hatred, acts of provocation and the use of arms".  He said it is crucial that political leaders who can work for reconciliation emerge in upcoming elections.  Israel is scheduled to hold elections on February 10.

Nearly 700 Palestinians have been killed since Israel started bombarding the Gaza Strip on December 27 with the aim of halting Hamas rocket attacks.

Pope Benedict is planning to visit Holy Land sites in Jordan, Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank in May.

In his speech to the diplomats, the pope also said at the dawn of 2009 humanity is suffering, due to bloody conflicts and terror attacks that have sown death and destruction in countries like Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Algeria.

The pope also said civilian and political authorities in Iraq and India must work energetically to put an end to the intolerance and persecution of Christians that has occurred in recent months.  He added that efforts must be made to ensure that the damage caused to places of prayer and property be repaired.

Pope Benedict also expressed concern over what he called a serious crisis in disarmament efforts and military spending that is draining resources sorely needed for the world's poor.  He also called for a negotiated solution to the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.