The Czech Republic, which takes over the European Union's presidency on January 1, defended Israel's strikes against Hamas on Tuesday. While the EU has called for a cease-fire to end the violence between Israel and Hamas that has killed almost 350 Palestinians since Saturday morning, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg insisted Israel had the right to defend itself, according to the Reuters news agency. "Let us realize one thing: Hamas increased steeply the number of rockets fired at Israel since the cease-fire ended on December 19. That is not acceptable any more," Schwarzenberg told the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes in an interview. The country currently holding the EU presidency, France, has condemned Israel's strikes and the rocket attacks from Hamas terrorists and called for both sides to stop immediately. It also said it deplored the many civilian casualties and condemned Israel's "disproportionate use of force," echoing comments from UN Secretary-General Bank Ki-moon, who has also called for a cease-fire. Schwarzenberg, a staunch ally of the United States, said Hamas had excluded itself from serious political debate due to its rocket attacks on Israel. He also hinted the group's putting its bases and gun warehouses in densely populated areas was the reason for the Palestinians' growing death toll. "Why am I one of the few that have expressed understanding for Israel? ... I am enjoying the luxury of telling the truth," Schwarzenberg told the daily. He said that when the Czech Republic would hold the EU presidency he would try to push through a policy that would lead to peace, saying "I would be very happy if it helped the Palestinians." He added he would not support either side in the conflict but rather work as a mediator. The paper cited his office as saying he would take part in an extraordinary conference of EU foreign ministers in Paris on Tuesday evening to discuss the attacks.