foto obama by Bauer-Griffin
Despite growing pressure on Barack Obama to speak out on the crisis in Gaza, the US president-elect has remained silent on the issue.
Obama, holidaying in Hawaii, has made no public remarks on Israel's unrelenting military assault on the Palestinian territory, which has left more than 380 people there dead.
The former Illinois senator spoke out after last month's attacks in Mumbai and has made detailed statements on the US economic crisis.
But some fear that the US president-elect's reluctance to speak out on the Gaza raids could be sending its own message.
"Silence sounds like complicity," Mark Perry, the Washington Director of the Conflicts Forum group, told Al Jazeera.
"Obama has said that Israel has the right to defend itself from rocket attacks but my question to him is 'does he believe that Palestinians also have the right of self-defence?'"
Support for Israel
Israel says the operation is necessary to prevent Palestinian rocket attacks on the south of the country.
And Obama repeatedly spoke out in support for Israel during his election campaign, describing the country as one of the US' greatest allies and has vowed to ensure its security.
Obama was shown Palestinian rockets during his visit to Sderot [AFP]
He caused anger in the Arab world when he told a pro-Israel lobby group in June that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel.
He also visited Sderot, the Israeli town close to Gaza regularly targeted by Palestinian rocket fire, in July, to show his support for residents.
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, has cited comments Obama made during that visit in his own justification for launching the assault.
"Obama said that if rockets were being fired at his home while his two daughters were sleeping, he would do everything he could to prevent it," Barak was reported as saying on Monday.
Obama's aides have repeatedly said he is monitoring the situation and continues to receive intelligence briefings but that he is not yet US president.
But George Bush, the current US leader, has also remained silent on Israel's attacks although the White House has offered its support to Israel.
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Many Arabs were cautiously optimistic about Obama's election victory in November, in the belief that a fresh face in the White House would be better than Bush, who invaded Iraq and gave strong support to Israel.
But his choice of a foreign policy team, especially Hillary Clinton as US secretary of state and Rahm Emanuel as his White House chief-of-staff, have raised doubts that much will change.
But some see his see his silence as symptomatic of caution over his own position and the power of the Israel lobby.
"He wants to be cautious and I think he will remain cautious because the Arab-Israeli conflict is not one of his priorities," Hassan Nafaa, an Egyptian political scientist and secretary-general of the Arab Thought Forum in Amman, told Reuters.
"Obama's position is very precarious. The Jewish lobby warned against his election, so he has chosen to remain silent (on Gaza)," added Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
Protests demand change
However many in the US have called on Obama to speak out personally on events in Gaza.
Protesters gathered at Obama's transition office in Washington DC on Monday, and outside his holiday residence in Hawaii on Tuesday, to demand he do more.
"The Obama administration is working hand in glove with the Bush administration and...there is no reason that they can't work together to get something done," Mike Reitz, a federal government worker, told Al Jazeera at the transition office protest.
At another protest against Israel's actions in Gaza outside the White House on Tuesday, some were sceptical about Barack Obama's commitment to Middle East peace-making.
"Is this the change that you were talking about?," said Reza Aboosaiedi, a computer specialist from Iran.
"If this is the change, you have a very, very deep problem, because if you add them up with the other economic problems and other problems in America, having this kind of problem in the Middle East, I don't think he can manage it."
But others at the protest still saw some hope that the former Illinois senator could make a difference.
"I would like to think that he would be more active than Bush in trying to push an agenda to bring Israel and Palestine together to have peace talks, but I don't know," said Bob Malone, a lawyer.
"But I'm an optimist, so I hope so."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies
By Phil Sherwell, in New York
Last Updated: 9:01AM GMT 04 Jan 2009
Mr Obama takes up temporary accommodation in Washington today after travelling from Chicago with his wife Michelle and daughters, Malia and Sasha. After he has seen off his two daughters for the first day at their new school tomorrow morning, Mr Obama has an appointment with Democratic and Republican leaders about his $775 billion (£533 billion) economic stimulus plan.
While he is in daily touch with his new foreign policy team, headed by the prospective secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, about the developments in the Middle East, he will not take a direct stance on the fighting until taking office on Jan 20.
Mrs Clinton is expected to pursue a burst of shuttle diplomacy after her confirmation, in part to establish her credentials as an honest broker.
As First Lady, she provoked criticism from some Jewish groups for embracing Suha Arafat, the wife of the late Palestinian leader. But in her role as New York senator, she has been a strident ally of Israel.
President George W Bush has all but ceded handling of the country's economic slump to his successor. However, on foreign policy, Mr Obama and his aides are sticking to the mantra that the country has only one president at a time.
"The best leaders can multi-task while keeping their priorities clear," said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic strategist.
"The discipline that Obama showed during the campaign bodes well for his presidency and his ability to handle more than one crisis at a time. But he was elected to solve the country's economic woes and he won't be distracted."
Mr Obama used his weekly video address to the country on Saturday to offer the most detail yet on his proposals for widespread infrastructure spending and tax breaks.
Mr Gerstein said: "It's a fine line but so far he's walked it. He needs to show there's no need to panic while conveying the seriousness of the situation we're in."
The clashes 6,000 miles away between Israeli forces and Hamas are a stark reminder of the daunting array of challenges outside his core policies that he will face after the inauguration.
During his election campaign Mr Obama focused his foreign policy agenda on withdrawing from Iraq and changing the direction of war in Afghanistan. Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East negotiator and adviser to six secretaries of state, said that although Mr Obama was elected to mend the US economy, he would inevitably have to involve himself in events in Gaza.
"He'll have no choice but to try to tackle the Middle East," he said. "The issue will stick to him like a barnacle to a boat. The Europeans, the Arabs and the international community will be all over him like a cheap suit demanding he do something.
"But he could inherit a very different situation on Jan 21 from where we are now. Three weeks is an eternity in the Arab-Israeli conflict."
He predicted that an Obama administration would "differentiate between a special and an exclusive relationship with Israel" and would seek ways to talk to Hamas through a third party such as Egypt.
Daniel Levy, who was a special adviser to the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and is now the director of the Middle East Initiative at the New American Foundation think-tank in Washington, said the incoming president's words would come under intense scrutiny.
"Obama will face his first challenge on the Middle East as soon as makes his first comments," he said.
"Everyone is waiting not just to hear the words but to hear the nuance. We may hear language that has not been heard for a long time – strongly supportive of Israel's security concerns, but also empathetic to the Palestinians and their needs."