CAIRO: US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday started talks with Egypt’s leadership as the two sides voiced guarded hope of negotiating a ceasefire to end two weeks of bloodshed in Gaza.
Kerry, who arrived late on Monday in the wake of growing casualties from the Israeli-Hamas conflict, held talks in Cairo on Monday with United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, who has also come to the Egyptian capital to push for a truce.
Kerry opened talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and will later meet the president, former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The top US diplomat voiced appreciation to Egypt for proposing a truce that was embraced by Israel but rejected by Hamas, which has tense ties with Cairo’s army-backed government and has refused to end violence unless Israel ends its siege of the Gaza Strip.
“We are hopeful that this visit will result in a ceasefire that provides the necessary security for the Palestinian people and that we can commence to address the medium- and long-term issues related to Gaza,” Shoukri told reporters as he started talks with Kerry.
Kerry, who has invested much of his tenure in an unsuccessful bid for a lasting Middle East peace agreement, said he would talk to Egypt about the truce and “how we can build on it and hopefully find not only a way to a ceasefire but a way to deal with the underlying issues, which are very complicated.”
The United States has publicly welcomed Egypt’s plan and stood behind Israel, laying blame for the conflict squarely at Hamas which has showered the Jewish state with rockets.
But US officials said they were also looking to see if they can encourage changes in Egypt’s proposal to secure the backing of Hamas, which believes Israel has reneged on previous agreements.
“If we could get both sides to agree on a ceasefire immediately that was relatively free of conditions, we would take that in a second,” a US official traveling with Kerry said on condition of anonymity.
“But it’s going to require conversations with both parties on the ground before we really know what exactly a ceasefire that can work is going to look like,” the official said.
Kerry met early in the morning with the Palestinian Authority’s intelligence chief, Majid Faraj, a US official said.
Fresh Israeli strikes continued on Tuesday and Gaza emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra reported the Palestinian death toll since Israel launched its operation on July 8 was now 576.
Israel says its campaign aims to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza, and the ground phase of the operation to destroy tunnels burrowed into Israel by Hamas, the main power in the coastal strip.
Since the offensive began huge numbers of Gazans have fled their homes, with the UN saying more than 100,000 people have sought shelter in 69 schools run by its Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA).
Meanwhile, Israeli forces killed more than 10 Gaza militants who had infiltrated southern Israel, the army said, later announcing it had lost four soldiers in that battle.
The troops lost in that clash were among seven killed in 24 hours, said the Israeli army, adding 30 soldiers were wounded over the same period.
That brought its toll to 25 soldiers killed since the start of the operation, including 13 on Sunday, the bloodiest single day for the Israeli military since the Lebanon war of 2006.
Two Israeli civilians, both hit by rocket fire, have been killed.
Hamas on Monday reiterated its insistence on a lifting of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the release of prisoners to halt its rocket fire.
“The conditions for a ceasefire are… a full lifting of the blockade and then the release of those recently detained in the West Bank,” its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, said on television.
“We cannot go backwards, to a slow death,” he said, referring to the Israeli blockade in force since 2006.
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas held talks in Doha, pledging to work together for a ceasefire and to lift the blockade on Gaza.
But there has been no let-up since the operation began with 116 rockets hitting Israel on Monday, one striking the greater Tel Aviv area, and another 17 shot down, the army said.