Kerry lands in Israel after PLO backs Hamas' Gaza truce demands
Palestinian decision-making body decides to back Hamas' demands, says 'stopping the aggression and lifting the blockade on Gaza are the demands of the entire Palestinian people'; possible clearing way for ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said negotiations toward a cease-fire agreement in the Gaza Strip are making some progress after days of a deadly impasse between Israel and Hamas militants.
His arrivial in Israel came after the Palestinian decision-making body led by US-backed President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday endorsed demands by Hamas for halting Gaza hostilities with Israel, a closing of ranks that may help Egyptian-mediated truce efforts.
With Israeli and US encouragement, Egypt has tried to get both sides to hold fire and then negotiate terms for protracted calm in the Palestinian enclave where officials said 624 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in 15 days of fighting.
Making an unannounced, one-day visit, Kerry was due to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, signalling an intensification of efforts to end the bloodshed.
"We have certainly made some steps forward. There is still work to be done," Kerry said shortly after arriving.
Hamas, the Gaza Strip's dominant Islamists, and other armed factions had baulked at Cairo's offer, saying they wanted assurances of relief from an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and other concessions. The dispute was further complicated by distrust between Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamas.
In a move that could effectively turn Abbas into the main interlocutor for a Gaza truce, his umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) on Wednesday formally supported core conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.
"The Gaza demands of stopping the aggression and lifting the blockade in all its forms are the demands of the entire Palestinian people and they represent the goal that the Palestinian leadership has dedicated all its power to achieve," senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said in Ramallah, the hub city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Abbas is based.
"We are confident Gaza will not be broken as long as our people are standing beside it to support it through all possible means until the invaders understand that our great people inside the homeland and outside will not leave Gaza alone."
Signalling that Abbas, too, sought a staggered cessation of hostilities, the Palestinian leader's Fatah faction on Tuesday proposed a truce followed by five days of negotiations on terms.
There was no immediate response to the PLO statement from Hamas or Israel, which pressed the Gaza offensive it began on July 8 after a surge of cross-border rocket salvoes.
Egyptian sources, speaking on Tuesday as US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo to advance truce efforts, said a unified Palestinian position could help achieve a deal.
Having unilaterally accepted an Egyptian-proposed truce last week that was rejected by Hamas, the Israelis made clear on Tuesday they would not stand down before their forces destroyed Hamas's military infrastructure, including rocket sites and a network of tunnels used for cross-border Palestinian raids.
"A cease-fire is not near," said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a dovish member of Netanyahu's security cabinet, told Ynet Tuesday.
Following meetings in Egypt, which has some leverage over Hamas through its control of its border with Gaza, Kerry said on Tuesday there was still "work to do" to resolve the conflict and urged the Palestinian Islamists to pursue negotiations.
Because Washington, like Israel and the European Union, deems Hamas a terrorist group, they have no direct contact and Washington must rely on proxies such as Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.
In a sign of the intensity of the US diplomacy, Kerry spoke to Netanyahu and to Qatari and Turkish foreign ministers after meeting Sisi for two hours, a senior US official said.
"The Egyptians have provided a framework and a forum for them to be able to come to the table to have a serious discussion together with other factions of the Palestinians," Kerry said. "Hamas has a fundamental choice to make and it is a choice that will have a profound impact for the people of Gaza."
Angered by an Israeli crackdown on its supporters in the West Bank and by Gaza's hardship under blockade, Hamas has said it is willing to continue fighting. In addition to freeing up Gaza's borders, Hamas wants a prisoner release by Israel.
The Egyptian plan does not specify a timeline for easing the blockade, saying "crossings shall be opened and the passage of persons and goods through border crossings shall be facilitated once the security situation becomes stable on the ground".
US officials view Qatar, a tiny, gas-rich Gulf state that has supported Hamas financially and hosts some of the militant group's senior leaders, as important to the diplomacy.
In contrast, the Egyptian government is deeply suspicious of Hamas as it is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement toppled from power in Cairo by then-army chief Sisi last year.
Israel is openly opposed to giving Qatar or Turkey leading roles in mediation, given its troubled ties with both countries.
The upcoming Eid al-Fitr festival - Islam's biggest annual celebration that follows the end of the fasting month of Ramadan this weekend - could provide all sides with a convenient moment to agree to a cease-fire.
Asked about Eid, a senior Obama administration official said: "It's a potential opportunity. We want there to be a cease-fire as soon as possible basically, and insofar as that's a marker that can compel Hamas to the table that would be a good thing, but the bottom line is they're going to have to stop firing rockets."