Former US President Jimmy Carter called the blockade of Gaza a crime and an atrocity on Thursday and said US attempts to undermine Hamas had been counterproductive.
Speaking at the American University in Cairo after talks with Hamas leaders, Carter said Palestinians in Gaza were being "starved to death" and received fewer calories a day than people in the poorest parts of Africa.
"It's an atrocity what is being perpetrated as punishment on the people in Gaza. It's a crime... I think it is an abomination that this continues to go on," Carter said.
Carter said Israel and the US were trying to make the quality of life in Gaza markedly worse than in the West Bank, where the rival Fatah group is in control.
"I think politically speaking this has worked even to strengthen the popularity of Hamas and to the detriment of the popularity of Fatah," he added.
Carter said Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, must be involved in any arrangements that could lead to peace.
"One of the reasons I wanted to come and meet with the Syrians and Hamas was to set an example that might be emulated by others... I know that there are some officials in the Israeli government that are quite willing to meet with Hamas and maybe that will happen in the near future," he added, without naming who those Israeli officials may be.
Asked for Qassams to stop
Carter's talks in Cairo were with former Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar and former Interior Minister Saeed Seyam, who did not speak to reporters. Hamas officials have touted the meetings as a recognition of their legitimacy after their 2006 election victory.
Carter said he had also asked Hamas officials to stop rocket attacks into Israel.
He said that during his visit to Israel, the first stop on his regional tour, he saw rockets that had been fired by Hamas and ''met with people who lost loved ones.''
''At the same time, if you live in Gaza, you know that for every Israeli killed in any kind of combat, between 30 to 40 Palestinians are killed because of the extreme military capability of Israel,'' Carter said.
Obama slams Carter's meetings
There was more criticism of Carter in Washington, where US Congressman Joe Knollenberg, a Republican from Michigan, proposed legislation to prohibit federal funding of the Atlanta, Georgia-based Carter Center.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama also criticized Carter, saying he had a ''fundamental disagreement'' with the former president. ''We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel's destruction,'' Obama said.
In Israel, all the country's senior political leaders except President Shimon Peres declined to meet with Carter when he visited.
He is expected Friday in Syria - the latest stop on a tour he calls a private Mideast peace mission - where he said he will meet with Hamas' exiled political chief Khaled Mashaal, as well as Syrian President Bashar Assad. Afterwards Carter is also to visit Saudi Arabia and Jordan before returning to Israel late Sunday.
AP and Reuters contributed to this report