WASHINGTON (CBS DC/AP) — The White House’s Deputy National Security Adviser, Ben Rhodes, said that the Obama administration believes that while Israel “has a right to defend itself,” the country “can do more” to avoid civilian casualties.

Speaking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday, Rhodes reiterated that Israel’s military action in Gaza is well within its bounds to defend itself from rocket and tunnel attacks. However, the deputy national security adviser said that the White House believes Israel must step up its efforts to avoid ongoing Palestinian civilian casualties.

“We’ve said number one, the conflict was precipitated by Hamas from firing rockets, and number two, Israel has a right defend itself against attacks from rockets and tunnels.

“At the same time though, we do believe Israel can do more to avoid the types of civilian casualties we’ve seen in recent days,” continued Rhodes.

“We’ve been heartbroken at the loss of Palestinian life, the loss of children. We believe Israel has to take greater care to avoid those types of civilian casualties. At the same time, we’ve been very troubled and heartbroken by the loss of Israeli life. That’s why we want to work for a cease-fire so there can be an end to this violence. Again, Israel has a right to defend itself. It needs to take care to avoid the tragic civilian casualties we’ve seen.”

Earlier Thursday, Israeli tank shells hit a compound housing a U.N. school in the Gaza Strip, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens who were seeking shelter from fierce clashes on the streets outside, Palestinian officials said, as Israel pressed forward with its 17-day war against the territory’s Hamas rulers.

The strike occurred during a day of heavy fighting throughout the coastal territory. Israel says the war is meant to halt rocket fire from Palestinian militants in Gaza and destroy a sophisticated network of cross-border tunnels. International efforts to bring about a truce appeared elusive, with the violence continuing and Hamas reiterating its demand for a cease-fire that a crippling Egyptian and Israeli blockade on Gaza be lifted.

Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said the dead and injured in the school compound were among hundreds of people seeking shelter from heavy fighting in the area.

It was the fourth time a U.N. facility has been hit in fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, since the Israeli operation began July 8. UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, has said it has found militant rockets inside two vacant schools but the target of Thursday’s strike was not immediately clear.

The Israeli military said it was reviewing the incident, saying that rockets launched by Hamas had landed in the Beit Hanoun area during fighting with its forces, and that those rockets may be responsible for the deaths.

Israel insists it does its utmost to prevent civilian casualties but says Hamas puts Palestinians in danger by hiding arms and fighters in civilian areas. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum condemned the violence, saying Israel was targeting displaced people and “committing massacres.”

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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