Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is defending the U.S. decision to abstain on the U.N. Security Council resolution approved late Thursday calling for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Rice said the resolution, approved by all 14 other council members, could have been more supportive of Egyptian-led Gaza mediation efforts.

Rice had a direct hand in the three days of debate at the U.N. that produced the resolution. And, though it contained language the United States had sought, calling for a durable and fully respected cease-fire, the Secretary said Washington had continued reservations about its wording and timing.

In a talk with reporters, Rice suggested the Council should have withheld action until Egypt's mediation effort had produced some specific steps to curb arms smuggling to Hamas.

She also said the Bush administration was concerned that the measure seemed to draw an equivalence between Israel, a U.N. member state, and Hamas, a non-state actor, listed by the United State as a terrorist organization.

"Here you have a terrorist organization and a member-state, Israel, and there isn't any equivalence here. Israel was defending itself because of these (Hamas) rocket attacks. Yet, we are concerned about the suffering of the people, the humanitarian situation, and we're doing everything we can to alleviate that, as well," she said.

Though stressing U.S. concern about humanitarian conditions in Gaza, Rice refused to join in mounting international criticism of Israeli tactics that have led to civilian casualties in the coastal strip - saying Israeli forces are operating in a tough urban environment:

"It is very difficult in a circumstance like Gaza, which is a very densely populated area. I might note it's also an area in which Hamas participates in activities like using human shields and using buildings that are not designated as military buildings to house their fighters. So it's hard," she said.

The Secretary said she was encouraged that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, after intensive discussions with her, agreed to open a so-called humanitarian corridor in Gaza. The State Department says it is pushing Israel to extend the hours of its temporary cease-fires and allow expanded distribution of supplies.

The pro-Israel U.S. lobbying group AIPAC Friday joined Rice in criticizing the U.N. resolution for equating Israel and Hamas, saying the Jewish state is exercising its right of self-defense against a terrorist group.

The group said it was disappointed the Bush administration had, in its words, succumbed to Arab pressure in bringing the U.N. measure to a vote while more promising Franco-Egyptian diplomatic efforts were under way.