Kerry Lands in Tel Aviv for Cease-Fire Talks

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John Kerry

Israeli forces pounded the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, sending thousands of residents fleeing, and said it was meeting stiff resistance from Hamas Islamists, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Tel Aviv to push ceasefire talks.

Making an unannounced, one-day visit, Kerry was due to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

“Secretary Kerry arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel, this morning to meet with officials to discuss the ongoing cease-fire efforts,” Jen Psaki said.

U.S. officials have downplayed expectations for an immediate, lasting truce between Israel and the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza. At the least, Kerry’s mission Wednesday sought to define the limits of what each side would accept in a potential cease-fire.

Recognizing the depths of the mistrust fueling this violence, Kerry said a cease-fire alone is clearly not enough.

“It is imperative that there be a serious engagement, discussion, negotiation regarding the underlying issues and addressing all of the underlying concerns that have brought us to where we are today,” Kerry said.

An Israeli military helicopter evacuates soldiers, wounded during an offensive in Gaza, near the border with the central Gaza Strip, July 23, 2014.
Launched offensive

Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt missile salvoes by Hamas Islamists, who were struggling under the weight of an Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade and angered by a crackdown on their supporters in the nearby occupied West Bank.

After failing to halt the militant barrage through days of aerial bombardment, Israel sent ground troops into Gaza last Thursday, looking to knock out Hamas’s missile stores and destroy a vast, underground network of tunnels.

Some 643 Palestinians, many of them children and civilians have died in the conflagration, including a seven-year-old hit by a shell in southern Gaza early Wednesday, a medic said.

Some 29 Israeli soldiers have been killed, including a tank officer shot by a Palestinian sniper overnight. Two civilians have been slain by rocket fire.

The military says one of its soldiers is also missing and believes he might be dead. Hamas says it has captured him, but has not released his picture.

Clouds of black smoke hung over the densely populated Mediterranean enclave, with the regular thud of artillery and tank shells filling the air.

“We are meeting resistance around the tunnels … they are constantly trying to attack us around and in the tunnels. That is the trend,” said Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner.

He said 30 militant gunman had been killed overnight, bringing the total to 210 since the offensive started.

Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, said its fighters had detonated an anti-personnel bomb as an Israeli army patrol passed, killing several troops. There was no immediate confirmation from Israel.

Three Palestinians died in Israeli strikes on Wednesday, Gaza officials said. Rocket launches set off air-raid sirens in southern Israel, but there was no word of casualties.

There was also violence in the West Bank, where a Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops near Bethlehem. The army said soldiers fired a rubber bullet at him during a confrontation with dozens of Palestinians hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails.

“No time to lose”

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday there was “no time to lose” in brokering a ceasefire in the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

Peres, meanwhile, defended his country’s actions, saying that “every country has an obligation to protect itself against attacks.”

On Tuesday, Netanyahu described Hamas as violent extremists who reject pluralism.

“What grievance can we solve for Hamas? Their grievances is that we exist. They don’t even want a two-state solution. They don’t want any state solution,” Netanyahu said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah told Ban that Palestinian demands can be summed up in one word: Justice.

Justice for people who are every day exposed to Israeli occupation and various types of injustice and destruction, Hamdallah said.

PLO support

Earlier on Wednesday, the Palestinian decision-making body led by U.S.-backed President Mahmoud Abbas endorsed demands by Hamas for halting Gaza hostilities with Israel, a closing of ranks that may help Egyptian-mediated truce efforts.

With Israeli and U.S. encouragement, Egypt has tried to get both sides to hold fire and then negotiate terms for protracted calm in the Palestinian enclave.

Hamas, the Gaza Strip’s dominant Islamists, and other armed factions had balked at Cairo’s offer, saying they wanted assurances of relief from an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and other concessions.

The dispute was further complicated by distrust between Egypt under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Hamas.

In a move that could effectively turn Abbas into the main interlocutor for a Gaza truce, his umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Wednesday formally supported core conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.

“The Gaza demands of stopping the aggression and lifting the blockade in all its forms are the demands of the entire Palestinian people and they represent the goal that the Palestinian leadership has dedicated all its power to achieve,” senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said in Ramallah, the hub city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Abbas is based.

“We are confident Gaza will not be broken as long as our people are standing beside it to support it through all possible means until the invaders understand that our great people inside the homeland and outside will not leave Gaza alone,” Rabbo said.

Truce negotiations

Signaling that Abbas, too, sought a staggered cessation of hostilities, the Palestinian leader’s Fatah faction on Tuesday proposed a truce followed by five days of negotiations on terms.

There was no immediate response to the PLO statement from Hamas or Israel, which pressed the Gaza offensive it began on July 8 after a surge of cross-border rocket salvoes.

Egyptian sources, speaking on Tuesday as Kerry visited Cairo to advance truce efforts, said a unified Palestinian position could help achieve a deal.

Unlike Hamas, which refuses permanent coexistence with the Jewish state, the PLO has pursued peacemaking for two decades.

Those efforts were set back in April when Netanyahu called off U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations over Abbas’s surprise power-share deal with Hamas.

Yet Netanyahu stopped short of cutting ties with Abbas, whose forces help secure the West Bank, and foreign mediators continue to see the Palestinian leader as someone the Israelis can negotiate with.

Having unilaterally accepted an Egyptian-proposed truce last week that was rejected by Hamas, the Israelis made clear on Tuesday they would not stand down before their forces destroyed Hamas’s military infrastructure, including rocket sites and a network of tunnels used for cross-border Palestinian raids.

“A cease-fire is not near,” said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the most dovish member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet.

Flight ban

In a blow to Israel’s economy, U.S. and many European air carriers halted flights to the country citing security worries after a militant rocket from Gaza hit a house near Ben Gurion airport.

Kerry flew into Tel Aviv Wednesday on an Air Force jet one day after the FAA ban.

European airlines also canceled flights to Israel, whose own carriers continued to operate.

An Israeli official said Netanyahu asked Kerry to help restore the U.S. flights, saying its airspace was safe..

A U.S. official said the Obama administration would not “overrule the FAA” on a security precaution but noted the ban would be reviewed after 24 hours.

(Scott Stearns contributed to this report from Tel Aviv. Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AP.)

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