The White House said little to discourage Israel from carrying out attacks in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Israeli tanks and helicopters were poised on Thursday to launch strikes.

The first victims included two schoolboy brothers who were shot dead. Other Palestinian children have also been injured in the overnight attacks launched by the Israeli army.

Bush conveyed the hard-hitting message to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by telephone. Sharon has approved attacks against the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The US President told Sharon that it was necessary to wipe out what he described as “terrorist” groups, in a statement released from Sharon’s office. 

The US President pointedly decided against telephoning Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Instead, US Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to Abbas, urging him to dismantle Palestinian groups fighting against Israel’s illegal occupation.

So far, the Palestinian Authority has refused to bow to Israeli and US demands, fearing dismantling the groups could spark civil war.

The stakes are high for Bush, who began his presidency with little involvement in the Middle East, determined not to follow his predecessor Bill Clinton. The former US leader invested heavily in the Middle East peace drive only to see it end in violence.

But Bush is trying to push forward a so-called “road map” aimed at ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In addition to Powell, White House National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice was working the phones, demanding Palestinian leaders crackdown on resistance groups, including Hamas.