AFP - France spearheaded alarmed reaction from European nations as Israeli tanks and troops pushed into the Gaza Strip, revealing a sharp difference in tone from the official line in Washington.
At least 460 Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded in an eight-day bombing campaign, according to Gaza medics, as Israeli tanks clashed overnight with Hamas fighters who fired back with mortars and rockets.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the decision to send ground forces into Gaza after a week of air strikes was a "dangerous military escalation", while Britain called for an immediate ceasefire.
The European Union's new Czech presidency said Israel did not have the right to take military actions "which largely affect civilians," though its launching of land operations in the Gaza Strip was no surprise.
But the US State Department said any Gaza ceasefire must not allow a return to the status quo.
"We are working toward a ceasefire that would not allow a reestablishment of the status quo ante, where Hamas can continue to launch rockets out of Gaza and to condemn the people of Gaza to a life of misery," said spokesman Sean McCormack.
President George W. Bush was briefed on the latest developments and US officials were in regular contact with Israeli, regional and European leaders, the White House said.
Bush has said the Israeli strikes were in self-defense after Hamas let a six-month ceasefire lapse on December 19 and fired rockets at Israel, and accused Hamas of putting Palestinian lives at risk by hiding among them.
Israel's military operation has brought thousands of people across the world onto the streets in protest.
The United Nations Security Council -- which has been criticised by Arab nations for failing to respond to Israel's military action -- responded by calling a special meeting for late Saturday.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon "called for an immediate end to the ground operation, and asked that Israel do all possible to ensure the protection of civilians and that humanitarian assistance is able to reach those in need," his office said in a statement.
The secretary general spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and "conveyed his extreme concern and disappointment," said the statement.
"He is convinced and alarmed that this escalation will inevitably increase the already heavy suffering of the affected civilian populations."
After Israeli tanks entered Gaza, a spokesman for Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told AFP the action was more "defensive than offensive".
At the same time, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said: "Even the indisputable right of the state to defend itself does not allow actions which largely affect civilians."
France, which held the rotating EU presidency until December 31, 2008, went further, with Kouchner saying his country "condemns the Israeli ground offensive against Gaza just as it condemns the continuing firing of rockets".
"This dangerous military escalation complicates the efforts undertaken by the international community... to stop the fighting, bring immediate aid to civilians and find a permanent ceasefire," he added.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Israel's latest action reinforced the need for an immediate ceasefire.
"Unfolding events show the urgent need for the immediate ceasefire that we have called for," he said in a statement.
Miliband said diplomatic efforts to find a solution continue, citing a visit by EU foreign ministers and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the region on Sunday and Monday respectively.
Earlier Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged Olmert to halt military action in Gaza, Brown's office said.
"Rocket attacks from Hamas must stop, and we have called for a halt to Israeli military action in Gaza. Too many have died, and we need space to get humanitarian supplies to those who need them," a statement said.
Spain also called on Israel to end its ground offensive and urged Hamas to stop launching rockets.
Foreign ministers from the 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference expressed "disappointment" at the UN Security Council's failure to act and "strongly condemned the brutal and sustained aggression" against the Palestinians.
In Cairo, the head of the Arab League, Amr Mussa, accused the UN Security Council of "ignoring" the situation in Gaza.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Abul Gheit said Israel took the UN Security Council's failure to issue a resolution calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas as a "green light" for invading Gaza.
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