WASHINGTON: Diplomatic talks to end the fighting in Gaza as civilian casualties mount are “very complicated,” a US official admitted yesterday, refusing to predict how long they could take.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has been in Cairo since Monday trying to persuade Israel and Hamas to lay down their arms in the 17-day war in which some 788 Palestinians have been killed along with 35 Israelis, most of them soldiers.
The top US diplomat visited both Israel and West Bank on Wednesday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but his efforts have so far failed to produce any concrete results.
Asked if it might be possible to agree a ceasefire before the end of the holy month of Ramadan due early next week, deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said it was “a tough issue.”
“We’re on the ground working through these issues, but it is very complicated,” she told reporters.
“I don’t have predictions to make for how long this will take, but I think all you have to do is look at what’s happening on the ground to see that this needs to happen as soon as possible.”
She refused to get into specific details of what the framework of any eventual ceasefire might look like, other than to say that the US was backing an Egyptian initiative which was based on a 2012 truce which was violated almost immediately after it was put into place.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Qatar, has rejected that proposal saying the Islamic group which controls Gaza will not agree to a ceasefire until it has firm guarantees that the long-time Israeli blockade of the impoverished Strip will be lifted.
Hamas is blacklisted by Israel and the United States as a terrorist organisation and conducts its negotiations through intermediaries such as Turkey and Qatar.
Kerry spoke three times by phone with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu yesterday as well as with his Qatari and Jordanian counterparts and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But analysts say a power vacuum in the Middle East, particularly Egypt’s lost of influence amid its own political upheavals, is hampering his efforts.
US deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken has called for an agreement that would ultimately result in the demilitarisation of the Gaza Strip to prevent further crises.
Fifteen Palestinians were killed yesterday when an Israeli shell slammed into a UN shelter where hundreds of civilians had taken refuge.
UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said: “Many have been killed —including women and children, as well as UN staff.” He said he was “appalled” by the news and “strongly condemned” the attack which he said “underscores the imperative for the killing to stop — and to stop now”.
Washington said it was “deeply saddened and concerned about the tragic incident”, without explicitly blaming its ally Israel for the shelling.
“We again urge all parties to redouble their efforts to protect civilians,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Cairo, where Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to negotiate a ceasefire.
Speaking after a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said Hamas should agree to the Egyptian ceasefire plan.
“After that, we will discuss what would happen in the future,” he said.
There was no let-up to the violence in Gaza, however, with most of yesterday’s 93 victims killed in and around Khuzaa, a flashpoint area east of Khan Yunis which has been the site of intensive fighting since Tuesday.
But the biggest single strike was at the school in the north, where the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said it had been trying to coordinate with the army over the evacuation of civilians, without success.