Obama voices concern about casualties in Mideast

By Lara Jakes, Associated Press

Published: Mon, July 21, 2014, 12:00 a.m. MDT

 President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation in Ukraine and Gaza, at the White House in Washington, Monday, July 21, 2014.

President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation in Ukraine and Gaza, at the White House in Washington, Monday, July 21, 2014.

(J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press)

CAIRO — President Barack Obama called Monday for the international community to focus on ending the fighting in the Gaza Strip, as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the Middle East with low expectations but still making a renewed push for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.

Voicing fresh concern about civilian casualties, Obama reaffirmed his belief that Israel has the right to defend itself against rockets being launched by Hamas into Israel. Yet he contended that Israel's military action in Gaza had already done "significant damage" to the Hamas terrorist infrastructure and said he doesn't want to see more civilians getting killed.

"We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives," Obama said. "And that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a cease-fire that ends the fighting and can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel."

As Obama spoke from South Lawn of the White House, Kerry flew to Cairo, where he planned to join diplomatic efforts to resume a truce that had been agreed to in November 2012. He will urge the militant Palestinian group to accept a cease-fire agreement offered by Egypt that would halt nearly two weeks of fighting. More than 500 Palestinians and more than two-dozen Israelis have been killed in that time.

Kerry headed almost immediately into a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Kerry is expected to meet with top officials, including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri and Arab League President Nabil Elaraby over the next few days. But there were no immediate plans for face-to-face meetings with officials from Qatar, Turkey, Israel and Ramallah, and senior State Department aides said it remained uncertain what could be accomplished in the talks.

Ban said he was disappointed that nine months of US-led talks between Israel and the Palestinians didn't yield better results, but said he arrived with two messages: "Violence must stop and must stop now." He added, "We can't claim victory simply by returning matters to where they stood before, which led to terrible bloodshed."

"Our goal is a cease-fire, and given enough time, that ought to be achievable," said one senior State Department official who briefed reporters traveling with Kerry. "But if it wasn't, then obviously anything that de-escalates the situation on the ground is a movement in a positive direction. So that would certainly be a fallback if we were unable to get the cease-fire that we're aiming for." State Department officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue publicly by name.

Senior State Department officials acknowledged that achieving a cease-fire would prove difficult. It was not clear exactly what Israel and Hamas would each demand in return for agreeing to a truce, but officials said the issue of opening Israel-Gaza border crossings was under discussion.

A truce between Israel and Hamas has been beset by violence three times since 2009, and was last brokered in 2012 by Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton. On Monday, the senior State Department officials said they believed it would be more difficult now to reach a new agreement.

Having already deployed an estimated 1,000 ground troops, Israel's military has pushed farther into Gaza than it had in 2012 and the conflict is farther along now than it was then. At the same time, the State officials noted, Hamas believes it was not given what it was promised in 2012 to lay down its arms, making it more skeptical of a cease-fire now. Finally, Hamas's relationship with Egypt, which is negotiating directly with the militant group, has deteriorated since President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in last year's coup. Egypt has since outlawed Morsi's party, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has ties to Hamas.

Sharp ideological divisions in the region have grown even deeper over the last two years. It remains unclear, for example, the extent to which nations like Egypt and Qatar are working together on a cease-fire proposal. Egypt has already offered one plan, which is backed by Israel and the U.S. But Hamas is looking to governments in Qatar and Turkey — both of which are also linked to the Muslim Brotherhood — to make sure its interests are represented

The Obama administration is sharpening its criticism of Hamas for its rocket attacks on Israel and other provocative acts, like tunneling under the border. At the same time, the U.S. is publicly encouraging Israel to take further steps to prevent Palestinian deaths.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Israel and its military have standards for avoiding the deaths of innocent civilians on either side.

"We would like to see Israel take greater steps to ensure that they're adhering to those standards," he said.

Two Americans fighting in the Israeli military, Max Steinberg of California and Nissim Carmeli of Texas, were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report. Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/larajakesAP

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1. patriot
Cedar Hills, UT,
July 21, 2014

Obama's words carry about as much weight as a wet paper bag. Thanks to Obama's decision to reduce America's military might no one fears or respects us anymore and you need just take a look round the globe to see all the wars flaming up with no end in site. Weakness breeds hostility while strength creates peace....but for liberals that is beyond their comprehension. A strong America could stand and make a statement where the bad guys would at least fear us and back off ...but the bad guys laugh at us now and ignore us so Obama's words are just so much spit in the wind. So much for weakness...

By the way - Iran is fueling this hostility in Israel giving weapons to all their suggogate bad guys to fire off misiles. Iran knows the US will do nothing ...and they are spot on correct. Russia knows the same thing..

Want more wars? Stay weak.

2. Strider303
Salt Lake City, UT,
July 21, 2014

The President's remarks and setting looks like an old mad scolding recalcitrant children from his porch. They know he is powerless to intervene and they ignore him, and continue to throw rocks at his dog or run a stick down the stakes in his picket fence. Sad.

But all is not lost, we have a Secretary of State who is fluent in French, that language of diplomacy - that should help.

3. Jester:)
Martinsburg, WV,
July 21, 2014

Surely the casualties way over there are concerning, but what about our Southern Border? Call me crazy but I'm a bit more concerned over the closer and more immediate threat. Perhaps we should start by labeling the drug cartels under the "T" word since they are. Hmmm. Or just keep ignoring the immigration issue until it slaps us in the face first.

4. intervention
slc, UT,
July 21, 2014

@patriot and strider

Two thing, Our military is still larger then the next several countries compined and these countries act towards us the same way they always have. The size of our military and who are president is has never effected these Middle East conflicts.
What exactly do you suggest this president do differently rhetoric is cheap please give us specifics.

5. timpClimber
Provo, UT,
July 21, 2014

Israel cannot agree to a truce unless all the infiltration tunnels located and destroyed. Hamas would just use them to enter Israel again to seek out civilians to kidnap or kill.