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Kerry returns to Mideast to push for ceasefire as civilian deaths mount

Secretary of State John Kerry steps out of his vehicle to board his plane at Andrews Air Force Base as he begins his trip to the Middle East, early Monday, July 21, 2014.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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 ceasefire 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 ceasefire 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 ceasefire 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.

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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 U.S.-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 ceasefire, and given enough time, that ought to be achievable," said one senior State Department official who briefed reporters travelling 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 ceasefire 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 ceasefire 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 ceasefire 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 ceasefire 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.

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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.

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