The top U.S. diplomat flew into Israel's main airport Wednesday despite a Federal Aviation Administration ban in an apparent sign of his determination to achieve a cease-fire agreement in the warring Gaza Strip despite little evidence of progress in ongoing negotiations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry planned to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during what appeared to be a crucial day in the flailing talks. 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.
Kerry flew into Tel Aviv on an Air Force jet one day after the FAA banned commercial flights into Ben-Gurion Airport. The FAA imposed the 24-hour restriction after a Hamas rocket landed within a mile of the airport on Tuesday.
The FAA was going to reassess its ban by midday Wednesday in Washington. The European Aviation Safety Agency also issued an advisory saying it "strongly recommends" airlines avoid the airport. Israeli officials said the precautionary U.S. step was unnecessary and "gave terror a prize" by reacting to Hamas' threats. It also prompted a complaint to Kerry by Netanyahu.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday's meetings would continue Kerry's efforts to get Hamas and Israel to declare a truce after more than two weeks of fighting in the Gaza Strip. More than 630 Palestinians and about 30 Israelis have been killed in the violence. Israel says its troops have killed hundreds of Hamas gunmen, while Gaza officials say the vast majority have been civilians, many of them children.
Kerry flew to Tel Aviv from Cairo, where he met Tuesday with Egypt's president and other high-level officials. Egypt, Israel and the U.S. back an unconditional cease-fire, to be followed by talks on a possible new border arrangement for Gaza. Israel and Egypt have severely restricted movement in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory in 2007.
But Hamas has rejected repeated Egyptian truce proposals. The militant group, with backing from its allies Qatar and Turkey, says it wants guarantees on lifting the blockade before halting its fire. Kerry spoke several times Tuesday with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiya.
Egypt has also been negotiating with some Hamas officials, but relations between the two sides have been strained since Egypt outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, which has ties to Hamas, after last year's overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi.
Israel launched a massive air campaign on July 8 to stop relentless Hamas rocket fire into Israel, and expanded it last week to a ground war aimed at destroying tunnels the military says Hamas has constructed from Gaza into Israel for attacks against Israelis. Israel has struck almost 3,000 sites in Gaza, killed more than 180 armed Palestinians and uncovered 66 access shafts of 23 tunnels, its military said.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said Tuesday's talks were focused "to not only resolve this issue, but also to set in motion once again the peace process that Secretary Kerry has been so actively involved in so as to end this ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis."
It's unlikely that Washington is ready to wade back into the morass of peace negotiations that broke off last April after nearly nine months of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry. But the new round of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants who control Gaza has reached the level of violence that U.S. officials warned last spring would happen without an enduring truce.
Kerry stopped short Tuesday of advocating a new round of peace talks. Still, he left the door open for broad negotiations between Israel and Palestinian officials once a cease-fire is in place.
"Just reaching a cease-fire is clearly not enough," Kerry told reporters after meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. "It is imperative that there be a serious engagement, discussion, negotiation regarding the underlying issues and addressing all the concerns that have brought us to where we are today."
The U.N.'s Ban met Tuesday with Palestinian authorities in Ramallah and with Netanyahu in Israel, where he urged a resumption of talks toward bringing about a two-state solution.
Netanyahu responded that Hamas, a group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, does not want a two-state solution and said the international community needed to hold Hamas accountable for the latest round of violence, saying its refusal to agree to a cease-fire had prevented an earlier end to the fighting.
"What we're seeing here with Hamas is another instance of Islamist extremism, violent extremism," Netanyahu said at a joint press conference in Tel Aviv. "What grievance can we solve with Hamas? Their grievance is that we exist. They don't want a two-state solution, they don't want any state solution."
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