Kerry heads to Cairo to broker Israel-Gaza ceasefire

US secretary of state flies to Egyptian capital to join mediation efforts; some American officials reportedly warned him against it

US Secretary of State John Kerry (photo credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (photo credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected in Cairo Monday for discussions surrounding a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

The White House said Kerry will seek “an immediate cessation of hostilities based on a return to the November 2012 ceasefire agreement,” and stressed the need to protect civilian life both “in Gaza and in Israel.”

Channel 2 analyst Ehud Ya’ari, one of Israel’s most respected commentators, said shortly after the announcement of Kerry’s impending return to the Middle East that, as far as Israel is concerned, the secretary of state’s ceasefire trip is premature “and bad for Israel,” and that he should have left it to the Egyptians to lead the ceasefire effort. Ya’ari said many people, “including senior American officials,” tried to convey this to Kerry.

This marks the continuing trend of the Obama Administration “to give credit” to the Muslim Brotherhood, in this case Hamas, Ya’ari said, except that now it’s graver, because “we’re in a war.”

Kerry was caught critiquing Israel’s handling of the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip on an open mic earlier on Sunday.

“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” Kerry told an aide over the phone, seemingly criticizing the Israeli government’s pledge to limit the scope of its ground invasion, Politico reported.

Kerry used the same word, “pinpoint,” that was employed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Sunday interview with CNN.

“There are very few examples in history of countries that have been rocketed on this scale,” Netanyahu told CNN. “If you look at our response, it’s actually very measured and trying to be as pinpointed as we can.”

Later in the phone call, Kerry added: “We’ve got to get over there…. I think John, we ought to go tonight. I think it’s crazy to be sitting around.”

But elsewhere Kerry defended Israel’s position.

Kerry told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that it is “unacceptable by any standard anywhere in the world” and that Israel must protect its citizens.

In response to a question on ABC’s “This Week,” Kerry dismissed claims that Israel was committing genocide as “rhetoric that we’ve heard many, many times.”

Kerry turned his answer into an excoriation of Hamas and continued, “What they need to do is stop rocketing Israel and accept a ceasefire. It’s very, very clear that they’ve tunneled under Israel. They’ve tried to come out of those tunnels with people with handcuffs and tranquilizer drugs to capture Israeli citizens and hold them for ransom, or worse. They’ve been rocketing Israel with thousands of rockets.

“They’ve been offered a ceasefire, and they’ve refused to take the ceasefire. Even though Egypt and others have called for that ceasefire, they’ve just stubbornly invited further efforts to try to defuse the ability to be able to rocket Israel.”

Kerry, a combat veteran, said that the situation in Gaza was “ugly, obviously,” acknowledging that “war is ugly, and bad things are going to happen,” but he added that “they” — not specifying whether he meant Hamas or the Palestinian Authority as a whole — “need to recognize their own responsibility.

“We have offered to have a ceasefire and then negotiate the issues. We’ve obviously shown our bona fides in the United States, and the president has put his presidency behind the effort to try to find peace in the region,” he continued. “So they need to join up and be responsible and accept a unilateral — not a unilateral, but a multilateral ceasefire without conditions, and then we pledge to discuss all the underlying issues, which we’ve been trying to do for the last year-and-a-half.”

Kerry placed responsibility for the escalation on Hamas, arguing that “when three young Israeli kids are taken and murdered, and Hamas applauds it and celebrates the fact that they were kidnapped and supported the kidnapping, and then starts rocketing Israel when they’re looking for the people who did it, that’s out of balance by any standard, George. And I think it’s important for people to remember the facts that led to this. Hamas needs to join up, be part of a solution, not the problem.”

In interviews with US media on Sunday, Netanyahu said Israel had to stop the rockets and the Hamas tunnels. He said Israel needs “a sustainable ceasefire” and to work for a demilitarized Gaza. Speaking to CNN, Netanyahu said of Hamas: “They want to pile up as many dead civilians as they can… The more dead, the better.”

Netanyahu and Kerry were speaking after Israeli strikes on Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood killed 60 people, Palestinian medical officials in the Gaza Strip reported.

Thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting there soon after midnight Saturday-Sunday, the IDF announced later Sunday, bringing to 18 the toll of IDF soldiers killed in the conflict to date.

Israeli officials said Shejaiya is a Hamas stronghold, and that 150 rockets had been launched from that area in the past two weeks, Israel’s Channel 2 reported. Israeli military officials said Sunday that they had told civilians to leave the Shejaiya area days ago, ahead of the IDF military action.

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil contributed to this report. 

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