US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday some progress had been made in efforts to bring an end to 16 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
"We have certainly made some steps forward. There is still work to be done," Kerry said shortly after arriving in Jerusalem for a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He declined to give any details.
Kerry arrived in Tel Aviv earlier on Wednesday " to meet with officials to discuss the ongoing cease-fire efforts," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
"He will also travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank, and will be meeting with Palestinian Authority President [Mahmoud] Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu," she added
On Tuesday, Kerry held talks with Egyptian officials in Cairo, while Ban met with leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah. As of Tuesday night, there was no sign that a cease-fire was imminent.
Ban did not mention any cease-fire proposal at a press conference in Tel Aviv alongside Netanyahu, while Kerry said in Cairo that the Egyptian cease-fire proposal – which Hamas rejected last week – was the “framework” to end the violence.
“Hamas has a fundamental choice to make, and it is a choice that will have a profound impact for the people of Gaza,” Kerry said after a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
He added that “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.”
The Egyptian proposal calls for a complete halt to violence, followed 48 hours later by the beginning of negotiations over a long-term arrangement for the Gaza Strip. The proposal also calls for eventually reopening Gaza’s closed border crossings and placing PA security officers there.
Kerry has been in continuous contact with Netanyahu, and a senior State Department official said the objective of Kerry’s visit to the region was “to get the fastest possible cease-fire.”
Ban arrived Tuesday afternoon and went immediately to the IAF headquarters in Tel Aviv for his meeting with Netanyahu.
Before the meeting, at the press conference with Ban, the prime minister said that the international community must take a “clear stand” and hold Hamas accountable for consistently rejecting various cease-fire proposals, and for “starting and prolonging this conflict.”
Ban expressed understanding for Israel’s position, saying that no country would accept rockets raining down on its civilians, and that all countries and parties had an international obligation to protect civilians.
The UN position was clear, he said: “We condemn strongly the rocket attacks, and these must stop immediately.”
Furthermore, he said, “we condemn the use of civilian sites, schools, hospitals and other civilian facilities for military purposes.” These comments contrasted starkly with remarks he made Sunday in Doha, after meeting with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiya.
“I know that while I was en route to Doha, dozens more civilians, including children, have been killed in Israeli military strikes in the Shejaia neighborhood in Gaza,” he said. “I condemn this atrocious action. Israel must exercise maximum restraint and do far more to protect civilians. I repeat my demand to all sides that they must respect international humanitarian law.”
Ban said in Doha that Qatar and its leadership, which Israel views as key Hamas enablers, “are vital to regional efforts to resolve the crisis.”
It later emerged that Qatar had paid for the plane that is currently shuttling Ban around the Middle East.
In Tel Aviv, he said that his message to Israelis and Palestinians was the same: “Stop fighting, start talking, and take on the root causes of the conflict so we are not back in the same situation in another six months or a year.”
He defined those issues as including “mutual recognition, occupation, despair and denial of dignity.”
Ban said that he “fully shares” and appreciates Israel’s legitimate concern and its right to defend itself. He also urged to Israel to “exercise maximum restraint.”Herb Keinon contributed to this story.