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Jerusalem (AFP) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday launched a vigorous defense of Israel’s month-long conflict in Gaza as “justified” and “proportionate”, blaming Hamas for the heavy Palestinian civilian death toll.

“I think it was justified. I think it was proportionate and that doesn’t in any way take away the deep regret we have for the loss of a single civilian casualty,” he told a news conference in Jerusalem in response to a question from the U.S. news channel CNN.

He said it would have been disproportionate to not “defend your people and giving the terrorists a license to kill.”

In his first public remarks since a 72-hour ceasefire came into effect on Tuesday, Netanyahu told local and foreign journalists that the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas was to blame for the heavy destruction and civilian casualties.

“The tragedy of Gaza is that is it ruled by Hamas,” he said.

Netanyahu showed reporters aerial images of homes and of a UN-run school, from which he said Hamas fired mortars and rockets during the conflict.

Israel lost 67 people during the fighting — 64 soldiers and three civilians, one of them a Thai worker. Palestinian medics said 1,875 Gazans died, including 430 children and 243 women.

Netanyahu said Hamas fighters deliberately increased the death toll by hiding behind human shields, and firing rockets towards Israel from civilian areas.

He said it would have been a “mistake” not to allow Israel to defend itself against Hamas rocket attacks because the Palestinian fighters allegedly fired from mosques and schools.

“If this were to happen, more and more civilians will die around the world because this is a testing period,” he said.

“Can a terrorist organisation fire thousands of rockets at the cities of a democracy?”

Netanyahu called on the international community, much of which has been critical of Israel over the devastation and human suffering in Gaza, to ostracize Hamas “for its callous abuse of civilians.”

“Every civilian casualty is a tragedy, a tragedy of Hamas’s own making,” he added.

Israel has refused to deal with a Palestinian unity government that emerged after Hamas signed a deal with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in April following years of bitter rivalry.

But Netanyahu said Israel was cooperating with the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority.

“We are cooperating with them and we are prepared to see a role for them,” he said.

“It is important in the reconstruction of Gaza, assuring the humanitarian aid and also the security questions that arise that we have these discussions and cooperation,” he premier added.

“In fact the ceasefire was coordinated among other things with them.”

Netanyahu also sought to address reports that Israeli-U.S. relations took a knock over the offensive, following tough criticism in Washington over civilian casualties.

He said he spoke to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday by telephone and welcomed remarks that Washington’s top diplomat made calling for the demilitarization of Gaza.

“We work very closely with him, with the U.S. administration with President (Barack) Obama throughout this operation and before,” he said.

AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon

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