GAZA, March 2 (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Israel for using "excessive" force in the Gaza Strip and demanded a halt to its offensive after troops killed 61 people on the bloodiest day for Palestinians since the 1980s.
Addressing an emergency session of the Security Council in New York after four days of fighting in which 96 Palestinians
have been killed, many of them civilians, Ban also called on Gaza's Islamist militants to stop firing rockets.
The 1.5 million Palestinians crammed into the blockaded, 45 km (30-mile) sliver of coast, enjoyed a relative respite early
on Sunday from Israeli air strikes and raids. Two Israeli soldiers died in a ground assault on Saturday. An Israeli civilian was killed by a rocket in a border town on Wednesday.
"While recognising Israel's right to defend itself, I condemn the disproportionate and excessive use of force that has killed and injured so many civilians, including children ... I call on Israel to cease such attacks," said Ban.
"I condemn Palestinian rocket attacks and call for the immediate cessation of such acts of terrorism," he said.
But with public anger boiling in Israel, there was no sign the government was ready to call off an offensive that took troops deeper into Gaza on Saturday and in larger numbers than at any time since Israel ended a 38-year occupation in 2005.
The Islamist Hamas movement, which seized control of Gaza last June by routing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's forces, vowed to maintain what it says is a self-defence strategy unless Israel agrees to end all military action.
Areas from which Hamas has launched rockets that have killed three Israelis in the past year saw heavy clashes on the ground on Saturday and air strikes continued to pound buildings and homes that Israel said were used by militants. In some of these attacks, children as young as six months have been killed.
Israel says militants use the population as cover by firing from built-up areas and blamed Hamas for the civilian deaths --
at least 30 occurred on Saturday.
Senior Israeli diplomat Daniel Carmon dismissed suggestions Israel was guilty of war crimes. "Hamas bears sole
responsibility for the violence," he told the Security Council.
Palestinian officials said the day's bloodshed was the worst since an "intifada" or uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in 2000, halting an earlier peace process. Not since a first intifada in the 1980s had so many died in a day, they said.
Diplomats said the Security Council was unlikely to adopt a Libyan resolution that condemns Israel's killing of civilians
but makes no mention of the Palestinian rocket fire.
The United States, Israel's closest ally and a veto-wielding member of the Council, made clear its understanding of the
Israeli position, while regretting loss of life on both sides.
"There is a clear distinction between terrorist rocket attacks that target civilians and action in self-defence," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
European diplomats said they believed the world body should at least make some comment on bloodshed which some say jeopardises the new U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and Abbas, who holds sway now only in the occupied West Bank.
Abbas's chief peace negotiator Ahmed Qurie called off a meeting scheduled for Monday with his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Israeli officials said.
But Abbas, who echoed widespread Palestinian outrage at Israel's tactics by calling it "more than holocaust", had taken
no decision to abandon the peace process, aides said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to meet Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week to try to
accelerate faltering negotiations which President George W. Bush hopes can forge a peace deal before he leaves office in January.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: "If Israeli aggression continues, it will bury the peace process."
At least 30 gunmen were killed on Saturday, medical staff and Hamas said. Among targets was the empty office of Hamas
leader Ismail Haniyeh, formerly Abbas's prime minister.
The rocket fire has put Olmert under pressure to act. But the government, chastened by a costly war against Hezbollah
guerrillas in Lebanon in 2006, is wary of an outright invasion.
While Abbas would shed few tears if Israel destroyed Hamas, he risks losing already patchy support in the West Bank if he is not seen to be speaking out against the Israeli military action.
He declared Sunday a day of national mourning.