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Obama sends Clinton to Mideast amid Gaza crisis

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – President Obama is dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Middle East as the U.S. urgently seeks to contain the bloody conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Clinton hastily departed for the region today from Cambodia, where she had joined Obama for summit meetings with Asian leaders. The White House said she would make three stops, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Palestinian officials in Ramallah and Egyptian leaders in Cairo.

Clinton’s trip marks the Obama administration’s most forceful engagement in the seven-day conflict that has killed more than 100 Palestinians and three Israelis, with hundreds more wounded. While the U.S. has backed Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket fire from Gaza, the Obama administration has warned its ally against pursuing a ground assault that would further escalate the violence and could dramatically increase casualties on both sides.

Still, Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the U.S. believes “Israel will make its own decisions about the military operations and decisions that it undertakes.”

“At the same time, we believe that Israel, like the United States, like other countries, would prefer to see their interests met diplomatically and peacefully,” Rhodes added.

Obama and Clinton each have held multiple telephone calls with their counterparts in Israel and Egypt, which is at the center of negotiations to quell the violence. Because the U.S. does not directly engage with Hamas, it is relying on Egypt, as well as Turkey and Qatar, to deliver its message to the Hamas leadership in Gaza.

The U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization and prohibits contact between its members and American officials.

Israel and Hamas say they are open to diplomatic mediation efforts being led by Egypt, but they are far apart in their demands.

Hamas wants Israel to halt all attacks on Gaza and lift tight restrictions on trade and movement in and out of the territory that have been in place since Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007. Israel demands an end to rocket fire from Gaza and a halt to weapons smuggling into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt.

The widening conflict has threatened to overshadow Obama’s three-country tour of Southeast Asia, his first overseas trip after winning re-election. The president, after a marathon day that took him from Thailand to Myanmar to Cambodia, worked the phones with Mideast leaders into the early hours this morning, aides said.

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