President Obama called for an immediate cease-fire in the Middle East Monday, as Israel and Hamas traded accusations over what were legitimate targets and who was to blame for mounting civilian casualties in Gaza. More than 500 Gazans and 25 Israeli soldiers have been killed, including two Americans with joint citizenship, since the fighting began earlier this month.
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cairo on Monday as part of an intensifying diplomatic effort by the White House to return to the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas that ended hostilities in 2012. He also announced that the United States will provide $47 million in humanitarian aid to help address the situation in Gaza.
Civilian deaths in Gaza have surged in recent days as the Israeli military offensive known as Protective Edge has expanded operations in the Palestinian enclave, including a ground invasion begun four days ago to destroy tunnels used by Hamas to move supplies and launch attacks on Israel. More than 570 Palestinians have been killed so far in Gaza, among them more than 150 children and more than 70 women, according to the Palestinian health ministry. The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates that one in three casualties in the conflict so far have been children.
The conflict’s disproportionate impact on children, who make up about half of Gaza’s population, came into grim focus Monday when it was reported that the home of the four boys of the Bakr family, whose deaths provoked international condemnation when they were killed by Israeli shelling while playing soccer, had also been bombed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday blamed the rising death toll on Hamas, who he said is trying to “pile up the bodies” of its own people by hiding rockets inside schools and mosques to elicit sympathy from the international community. In an interview with NBC News’ Brian Williams, Netanyahu said the Palestinian militant group was “responsible for all the civilian deaths, which we seek to minimize.”
Netanyahu said on Sunday that Hamas had fired 2,000 rockets in recent days, forcing Israeli’s hand. “I mean, we didn’t seek this escalation,” he said on CNN's "State of the Union." “Hamas forced it on us. They started rocketing our cities, steadily increasing the fire.”
Hamas pushed back against those accusations Monday in an exclusive statement to NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin. “Gaza is filled with international journalists; every single news network has a presence there,” a spokesman for the militant group said. “Yet, not a single one of these journalists has reported seeing any weapons or rockets or any Qassam fighters in or around any of the dozens of hospitals schools or mosques destroyed or bombed by Israel.”
Both President Obama and Secretary Kerry have expressed concern over the rising death count while defending Israel’s right to defend itself. “As a result of its operations, Israel has already done significant damage to Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure in Gaza,” the president said Monday as he pressed for a cease-fire. “I’ve also said, however, that we have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives.”
Those diplomatic efforts got a boost from the presence of Secretary Kerry, who arrived in Cairo later on Monday to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas based on an earlier, 2012 agreement brokered by the Egyptian government. “We do believe that there’s not another viable plan out there,” said State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, adding “this is not a negotiation about rewarding a terrorist organization. Obviously, our position on Hamas hasn’t changed, but this is an important point to talk to the Egyptians who do play a role here, and have played an important role in past cease-fires.”
An earlier Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, proposed last week, was rejected by Hamas.
In Cairo, Secretary Kerry met with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and promised $47 million to help address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. "We are deeply concerned about the consequences of Israel's appropriate and legitimate efforts to defend itself," Kerry said at the meeting.
The U.S. aid package will include $15 million for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and $32 million in emergency relief assistance. The funds will be used to provide critical humanitarian aid including shelter, food and medical supplies to Palestinians in Gaza.
Hostilities between Israel and Hamas flared up last month with the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens by Palestinian militants. In what appears to have been an act of retribution, a group of Israeli Jews then kidnapped and killed a Palestinian boy, who police said was burned alive. Suspects are in custody.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since ordered a “significant expansion” of its ground war with Hamas, which is aimed at destroying tunnels used by Palestinian militants. The Israeli military campaign was launched after 10 days of aerial strikes failed to halt rocket attacks on Israeli cities from Gaza.