John Kerry flew into Israel’s main airport today despite a US ban in a sign of his determination to achieve a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip – despite little evidence of progress in negotiations.
The US secretary of state is due to meet Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon during what appears to be a crucial day in the faltering talks.
US officials have downplayed expectations for an immediate, lasting truce between Israel and the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza, but Mr Kerry hopes to at least define the limits of what each side would accept in a potential ceasefire.
He flew into Tel Aviv in a US Air Force jet a day after the Federal Aviation Administration 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 yesterday.
The FAA will reassess its ban later today. The European Aviation Safety Agency also issued an advisory saying it “strongly recommends” airlines avoid the airport. Israeli officials said the precautionary step was unnecessary and “gave terror a prize” by reacting to Hamas’s threats. It also prompted a complaint to Mr Kerry by Mr Netanyahu.
The State Department said the meetings would continue Mr 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.
Mr Kerry flew to Tel Aviv from Cairo, where he met Egypt’s president and other high-level officials. Egypt, Israel and the US back an unconditional ceasefire, 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.
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. Mr Kerry spoke several times yesterday 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 to 23 tunnels, its military said.
Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shukri said yesterday’s talks aimed “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”.
Mr Kerry stopped short of advocating a new round of peace talks but he left the door open for broad negotiations between Israel and Palestinian officials once a ceasefire is in place.
“Just reaching a ceasefire is clearly not enough,” he told reporters after meeting 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.”
Mr Ban yesterday met Palestinian authorities in Ramallah and Mr Netanyahu in Israel, where he urged a resumption of talks towards a two-state solution.
Mr 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 ceasefire had prevented an earlier end to the fighting.