By Arshad Mohammed and Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO, July 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began a diplomatic push on Monday to secure a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, but senior U.S. officials acknowledged this would be difficult.
More than 500 people have died in the Gaza Strip fighting, the vast majority of them Palestinians, as Israel has pursued an air and ground offensive to stop rocket attacks on its territory from the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip.
Kerry began his consultations, which are expected to include meetings with top officials in Egypt and possibly elsewhere in the region, by meeting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Cairo on Monday night.
"We're deeply concerned about the consequences of Israel's appropriate and legitimate effort to defend itself," Kerry said as he and Ban posed for pictures before their talks, according to a U.S. reporter who attended the picture-taking session. "No country can stand by when rockets are attacking it."
"But always, in any kind of conflict, there is a concern about civilians - about children, women, communities that are caught in it," he added, announcing that the United States would provide $47 million in humanitarian aid to help Gaza residents.
Kerry plans to stay in Cairo until Wednesday morning and has no currently scheduled end to his trip, which may entail talks with officials from Qatar. The Gulf state has relatively close ties to Hamas and hosts its leader, Khaled Meshaal.
"Our goal is to achieve a cessation of hostilities as soon as possible," one senior State Department official told reporters as Kerry flew to Egypt. "We don't expect it will be easy, though. This is a very complicated dynamic.""
Among the complexities are the fact that the United States has no direct contact with Hamas, which it views as a terrorist group, and so must work through proxies such as Egypt and Qatar, which have their own tensions with the group and each other.
Qatar was a strong supporter of the former Egyptian government led by Mohamed Mursi, which was ousted by the Egyptian military and its then chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has since been elected Egypt's president.
"The effort to reach a cease-fire this time around is going to be in some ways more complicated than it was in 2012," said a second U.S. official. "The region is more divided now."
Mistrust between Egypt and Hamas has also complicated efforts to end the bloodshed in Gaza, where 536 mostly civilian Palestinians, including almost 100 children, have been killed according to Gaza health officials. Israel says 25 of its soldiers have also died, along with two civilians.
Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has rejected Cairo's truce proposal, saying it was not consulted and that the terms were unacceptable.
But there are signs that Egypt, which has long regarded itself as the most effective mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict, may show some flexibility and amend the initiative, three Egyptian officials told Reuters.
"Egypt does not mind adding some of Hamas' conditions provided that all involved parties approve," one senior Egyptian official said, without giving details.
Among Hamas' conditions are the lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza and the release of several hundred Palestinians arrested by Israel last month during its search for three Jewish teenagers abducted in the occupied West Bank. The trio were later found dead in a killing Israel blamed on Hamas.
But Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said Cairo has no plans to revise its cease-fire proposal, saying it guarantees the opening of border crossings between Egypt and Israel.
"The initiative clearly states that border crossings get opened after a cease-fire and when security stabilizes," Shukri said at a news conference with U.N. chief Ban in Cairo.
"If you really want to discuss all these conditions it will take a long time ... I'm urging that unconditionally that violence must be stopped by both sides," said Ban.
Egyptian officials suspect Hamas rejected the cease-fire plan at the urging of Qatar, a strategic player in reaching an effective deal as host to many exiled Islamists from across the Middle East, including Hamas's Meshaal.
U.S. officials made clear that they were hoping for a quick cease-fire with few conditions attached to it, saying they would then turn to the underlying causes of the Hamas-Israel conflict.
"Nothing will be resolved by any cease-fire, temporary or long, without really getting to those issues at some point and that's what we need to do," Kerry said as he met Ban. (Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Michael Georgy and Tom Heneghan)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/08/2014 2:47 PM EDT
White House Concerned By Renewed Fighting
The White House on Friday urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks and do what they can to protect civilians after Egyptian-mediated negotiations failed to extend a ceasefire and rocket fire resumed.
"The United States is very concerned about today's developments in Gaza," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
"We condemn the renewed rocket fire and we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides of that conflict," he said.
08/08/2014 1:42 PM EDT
Official: 5 Palestinians Killed In Gaza
Five Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since a ceasefire fell apart on Friday, a Palestinian medical official reported to Agence France Presse.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired 35 rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring a soldier and a civilian.
The father of a ten-year old Palestinian boy, who was killed in an Israeli air strike on the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in northern Gaza City, mourns at the city's Al-Shifa hospital, on August 8, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
08/08/2014 9:23 AM EDT
Palestinian Delegation Says Gaza Talks Will Continue
Palestinian factions will remain in Cairo and press on with Egyptian-mediated talks despite the end of the ceasefire in Gaza, the head of the delegation, Fatah official Azzam Ahmed, said on Friday.
"We are not for escalation. We are ready to continue through our Egyptian brothers in negotiating to reach a final agreement that would return the rights to their owners," Ahmed said. "I mean here lifting the blockade of Gaza."
Ahmed said Palestinian negotiators were due to meet Egyptian intelligence officials, who have been mediating the talks, later in the day. He said Palestinian factions were united in their decision not to extend the 72-hour truce that ended at 0500 GMT and had been clear about their basic demands to end the conflict.
08/08/2014 9:13 AM EDT
Egypt: Agreement Close In Gaza Talks
Egypt called on Friday for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire in Gaza and a return to the negotiating table, saying that only a few outstanding issues remained in negotiations it was mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The foreign ministry calls on all sides to rise to their responsibilities ... and to return immediately to the ceasefire commitment and exploit the opportunity available to resume negotiations on the very limited sticking points that remain in the fastest possible time," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
08/08/2014 3:58 AM EDT
Israeli Airstrikes On Gaza Resume
BREAKING: Israel says it's resumed strikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire, after end of 3-day truce.— The Associated Press (@AP) August 8, 2014
08/08/2014 3:02 AM EDT
Cease-Fire Ends With New Rocket Attacks
A 72-hour cease-fire expired at 8 a.m. today, and not long after, Gaza militants began firing rockets at Israel, The Associated Press reported.
The Israeli military said at least 10 rockets had been fired at Israel since the truce ended. Prior to the attacks, a senior official for Hamas said the militant groups would not extend the cease-fire.
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08/06/2014 2:46 PM EDT
Official: Israel Agrees To Extend Ceasefire
Israel has conditionally agreed to extend a ceasefire that ended a month of fighting in Gaza beyond a Friday deadline, an Israeli official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official did not say for how much longer Israel had agreed to extend the truce, only that: "Israel has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms," referring to the deal brokered by Egypt that took effect on Tuesday.
Hamas had no immediate comment.
08/06/2014 2:12 PM EDT
IDF: Rocket Sirens Were False Alarm
IDF confirms rocket sirens in southern Israel were false alarm http://t.co/QN677jtlXE— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) August 6, 2014
08/06/2014 1:18 PM EDT
Report: Rocket Sirens Sound At Gaza Border
ABC Foreign Editor Jon Williams reports that the IDF have confirmed the rocket sirens are sounding, but are checking to see if it is a false alarm.
08/05/2014 4:20 PM EDT
Israel Arrests Kidnapping Suspect
Reuters reports that Israel has arrested one of the suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.
Hussam Kawasme, a 40-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested on July 11 in connection with the killing of Israelis Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, who went missing on June 12 and were discovered dead a couple of weeks later.
Their kidnapping sparked a cycle of violence that led to the month-long conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Kawasme's arrest was made public for the first time on Tuesday in a document from an Israeli court case over whether houses belonging to him and two other suspects - who remain at large - should be destroyed as a punitive measure.
The lawyers listed as representing Kawasme were not reachable for comment.
The court document said Kawasme had admitted to helping to organize the kidnapping - securing funding from the Hamas Islamist group in Gaza and purchasing weapons which he passed on to the two other suspects who carried out the attack.
Kawasme also helped to bury the bodies of the teenagers in a plot of land he had bought a few months earlier, it said.
Israel has named the other two suspects in the case as Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha.