UPDATE 2-Thousands protest in Egypt against Israeli attacks on Gaza

* Egypt's Islamist leader faces dicey balancing act

* Egypt PM visits Gaza in show of solidarity

* Protesters plan to mass in Cairo's Tahrir Square

CAIRO, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Thousands of people protested in

Egyptian cities on Friday against Israeli air strikes on Gaza

and Egypt's president pledged to support the Palestinian

enclave's population in the face of "blatant aggression".

Western governments are watching Egypt's response to the

Gaza conflagration for signs of a more assertive stance towards

Israel since an Islamist came to power in the Arab world's most

populous nation.

President Mohamed Mursi is mindful of anti-Israeli sentiment

among Egyptians emboldened by last year's Arab Spring uprising

but needs to show Western allies his new government is no threat

to Middle East peace.

His prime minister, Hisham Kandil, visited Gaza on Friday in

a demonstration of solidarity after two days of strikes by

Israeli warplanes targeting Gaza militants, who had stepped up

rocket fire into Israel in recent weeks.

Gaza officials said 28 Palestinians, 16 of them civilians,

had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air

offensive against the tiny, densely populated enclave ruled by

the Islamist Hamas movement.

Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

"We see what is happening in Gaza as blatant aggression

against humanity," Mursi said in comments carried by Egypt's

state news agency. "I warn and repeat my warning to the

aggressors that they will never rule over the people of Gaza.

"I tell them in the name of all the Egyptian people that

Egypt today is not the Egypt of yesterday, and Arabs today are

not the Arabs of yesterday."

The Egyptian foreign minister also spoke to his counterparts

in the United States, Jordan, Brazil and Italy on Friday to

discuss the situation in Gaza, a ministry statement said.

Mohamed Kamel Amr spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary

Clinton about the necessity of cooperation between the United

States and Egypt to end the military confrontations. Amr

stressed the necessity of Israel ending attacks on Gaza and a

truce being rebuilt between the two sides, the statement said.

Israeli ministers were asked to endorse the call-up of up to

75,000 reservists after Gaza militants nearly hit Jerusalem with

a rocket for the first time in decades and fired at Tel Aviv for

a second day. Such a call-up could be the precursor of a ground

invasion into Gaza, or just psychological warfare.

COLD PEACE

Mursi's toppled predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was a staunch

U.S. ally who upheld a cold but stable peace with Israel.

The new president has vowed to respect the 1979 peace treaty

with the Jewish state. But relations have been strained by

protests that forced the evacuation of Israel's ambassador to

Cairo last year and cross-border attacks by Islamist militants.

More than 1,000 people gathered near Cairo's al-Azhar mosque

after Friday prayers, many waving Egyptian and Palestinian

flags.

"Gaza Gaza, symbol of pride", they chanted, and "generation

after generation, we declare our enmity towards you, Israel".

"I cannot, as an Egyptian, an Arab and a Muslim, just sit

back and watch the massacres in Gaza," said protester Abdel Aziz

Nagy, 25, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Protesters were marching from other areas of Cairo towards

Tahrir Square, the main rallying point for last year's uprising

that toppled Mubarak.

In Alexandria, around 2,000 protesters gathered in front of

a mosque, some holding posters demanding Egypt's border crossing

to Gaza be opened to allow aid into the impoverished enclave.

Hundreds also gathered in the cities of Ismailia, Suez and

al-Arish to denounce Israel's attacks.

Al-Azhar, Egypt's influential seat of Islamic learning,

called on all Arabs and Muslims to unite in support of their

brothers in Gaza, the state news agency MENA said.

"The Zionists are seeking to eliminate all (Palestinians) in

the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," Ahmed al-Tayyib, the Grand

Imam of al-Azhar, said in comments carried by MENA.

Al-Tayyib denounced the position of world powers on the

Gaza crisis, describing them as having "forgotten their

humanitarian duties ... and standing on the side of the

aggressors," according to MENA.

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