President Obama told guests at the White House’s annual Iftar dinner tonight that “further escalation” in the Middle East “benefits no one, least of all the Israeli and the Palestinian people.”

Faced with criticism from some Arab and Muslim activists who think he has been too friendly toward the Israeli side, Obama addressed the conflict near the end of his comments, which largely honored “the traditions of one of the world’s great faiths.”

“For all of us, whatever our faiths, Ramadan is a reminder of just how much we share. The values of peace and charity, the importance of family and community — these are universal values. The command to love one another, to uphold justice, and to care for the least among us — these are common threads in our faith traditions,” Obama said.

“…In Islam, there is a hadith that says God helps the servant as long as the servant helps his brother.  In other words, we’re summoned to serve and lift up one another, and that’s the lesson of several of our guests here tonight.”

Guests included Muslim Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Andre Carson (D-Ind.), as well as Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). Ambassadors from Arab and Muslim-majority countries were also invited.

“The pictures we are seeing in Gaza and Israel are heart-wrenching. People here in the United States care deeply about what’s happening there, and I know there are strong views, as well as differences, about how we should move forward, which is part of American democracy. We welcome that debate. That makes us stronger,” Obama said.

“Our goal has been and continues to be peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. And I will say very clearly, no country can accept rocket fired indiscriminately at citizens. And so, we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas,” he continued. “At the same time, on top of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that we’ve worked long and hard to alleviate, the death and injury of Palestinian civilians is a tragedy, which is why we’ve emphasized the need to protect civilians, regardless of who they are or where they live.”

Obama promised “to continue doing everything we can to facilitate a return to the 2012 cease-fire.”

“We are encouraged that Egypt has made a proposal to accomplish this goal, which we hope can restore the calm that we’ve been seeking. More broadly, however, the situation in Gaza reminds us again that the status quo is unsustainable and that the only path to true security is a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, where differences are resolved peacefully and in ways that respect the dignity of all people,” he said.

Obama has tried to forge a Mideast peace deal in his second term but the process fell apart when Fatah and Hamas negotiated a unity government. Hamas is on the U.S. foreign terrorist organization list.

“Here at home, even as we’re vigilant in ensuring our security, we have to continue to remain true to our highest ideals. In the United States of America, there is no place for false divisions between races and religions,” the president said. “We are all Americans, equal in rights and dignity, and no one should ever be targeted or disparaged because of their faith.  And that, too, is what makes us stronger.”