Kerry offers Gaza aid as truce diplomacy steps up

Shaun Tandon
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US Secretary of State John Kerry makes statements to the press in Cairo July 21, 2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry makes statements to the press in Cairo July 21, 2014 (AFP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Cairo (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday pledged $47 million in humanitarian aid for the battered Gaza Strip as he flew to the region to intensify efforts for an immediate truce.

Kerry, who has voiced willingness to tour the region as long as needed, started his mission in Cairo where he met visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The two leaders both called for an end to two weeks of violence that has claimed 573 Palestinian and 27 Israeli lives.

The top US diplomat defended ally Israel's right to strike against Hamas militants who have been raining rockets from the Gaza Strip. But Kerry voiced worries for children, women and other civilians hurt by the campaign.

"We are deeply concerned about the consequences of Israel's appropriate and legitimate effort to defend itself," Kerry told reporters as he met Ban.

Kerry said that the United States would provide $15 million to a $60 million emergency appeal from UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency.

The UN agency said that the number of Palestinians seeking refuge at its sites in Gaza has soared to more than 100,000 more than double the figure in the 2009 Gaza conflict.

The US Agency for International Development will also contribute $32 million to meet emergency needs in Gaza, the State Department said.

- Hamas urged to accept plan -

Ban and Kerry both urged Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, to embrace an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire that has been accepted by Israel.

Hamas has demanded that Israel agree to an end to its blockade of Gaza and release of scores of prisoners before the militants halt attacks, the latest of which saw 10 militants infiltrate southern Israel early on Monday.

"Only Hamas now needs to make the decision to spare innocent civilians from this violence," Kerry said.

Ban said that Hamas "should immediately stop firing rockets."

But Ban added: "While I understand how and why Israel has to respond militarily, there is a proportionality and ... most of the death toll (has been) Palestinian people."

Speaking earlier at a joint news conference with Ban, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that his government would not concede to Hamas's demands to alter the ceasefire proposal.

- New regional outlook -

Kerry plans to hold his own meetings Tuesday with the Egyptian leadership including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

But US officials acknowledged that diplomacy could prove more difficult than in past Gaza bloodletting in part because Egypt, long the key regional broker, had little leverage with Hamas after the army overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year.

"The objective here is to get the fastest possible ceasefire. That doesn't mean that it's going to be fast, and it certainly doesn't mean it's going to be easy, but that's the goal," a senior US official travelling with Kerry said on condition of anonymity.

Hamas has received support from two key regional powers, Qatar and Turkey, both Western allies that also have close relations with the Islamists.

US officials said that Kerry was maintaining contacts with Qatar and Turkey and was open to travel in the region.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas held talks in Qatar on the truce negotiations on Monday, a day later than planned.

- Private frustrations go public -

Kerry has publicly defended Israel but appeared to criticise the US ally in candid remarks caught on an open microphone between television interviews on Sunday.

Kerry was heard talking about Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza to State Department official Jonathan Finer just before appearing on the "Fox News Sunday" political talk show.

"I hope they don't think that's an invitation to go do more," Kerry says. "That better be the warning to them."

A frustrated Kerry then says: "It's a hell of a pinpoint operation, it's a hell of a pinpoint operation," in apparent frustration over the civilian toll in the Israeli operation.

"We've got to get over there," Kerry is heard saying on the Sunday recording. "I think it's crazy to be sitting around. Let's go."

Kerry said late Monday that he spoke by telephone with Netanyahu and that the Israeli premier felt "deeply" for civilians.