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U.N., U.S. urge end to Israel, Gaza violence flare-up

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed grave concern on Monday about a recent flare-up in violence between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, while the United States condemned rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled enclave.

At least 74 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and three Israelis have been wounded since the violence began on Friday.

It has followed a familiar pattern in which militants launch rocket attacks and Israel carries out air raids in the Gaza Strip. But the bloodshed usually ends after a few days with an informal truce.

"I am gravely concerned at the latest escalation between Gaza and Israel and once again civilians are paying a terrible price," Ban told a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the "Arab Spring" uprisings.

"Rocket attacks out of Gaza against Israeli civilian areas are unacceptable and must stop immediately. I reiterate my call on Israel to exercise maximum restraint," he said.

Though serious, few in Israel expect the flare-up to lead to a ground assault similar to the 2008-2009 Gaza war in which some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

Washington criticized the Palestinian militants for attacking Israel and called for an end to the escalation.

"We condemn in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza by terrorists into southern Israel," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "We call on those responsible to take immediate action to stop these cowardly acts. And we call on both sides to make every effort to restore calm."

Gaza, home to 1.7 million people, was under Israeli occupation from 1967 until 2005 and remains under blockade.

Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007 and is fighting for an independent Palestinian state but has shunned the stalled peace process supervised by international powers and refuses to recognize the Jewish state.

"We know that the solution of two states living side by side in peace and security is the only viable one and the best guarantee for the security of Israel," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told the U.N. Security Council.

The so-called Quartet of Middle East negotiators - the United States, Russia, the United Nations and European Union - met in New York on Monday to discuss the long-stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

In a statement, the Quartet "expressed serious concern for the recent escalation and called for calm." It called on the parties to refrain from provocative actions. The Quartet plans to meet again in Washington in April.

(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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