Kerry's Aim In Egypt: First, Get Israel And Hamas To Cease Fire

Secretary of State John Kerry is in Cairo trying to help forge a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The death toll continues to climb as Israel presses on with its ground operation in Gaza.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Palestinian Ministry of Health says more than 600 Gazans have been killed - a quarter of them children. And Israel says 27 of its soldiers and two civilians have died.

MONTAGNE: Israel and the Hamas militant group both say they will not stop fighting until their primary objectives are met. Israel says it wants to destroy the tunnels Hamas has built from Gaza into Israel. Hamas wants the blockade of Gaza to end. That's the stage on which Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to negotiate a cease-fire. Kerry is in Cairo today and NPR's Michele Kelemen is with him. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What does Kerry think he can - let's be realistic - accomplish on this trip?

KELEMEN: His goal is to get a cease-fire as soon as possible and then start working on the longer-term issues to resolve the situation in Gaza. You know, Renee, Kerry has wanted to come here for about a week now to support an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire. But now, as the death toll rises, there is a growing sense of urgency. U.S. officials also say that with its ground operation, Israel has managed to degrade the capabilities of Hamas. So the feeling, at least in Kerry's camp, is that the time is right to end this. He's been meeting here today with Egypt's president, the foreign minister, of the head of the Arab League. And he also had a late-night meeting last night with the Palestinian intelligence chief. And he is working the phones with regional players as well.

MONTAGNE: And of course, Hamas is absolutely key to this but the U.S. refuses to speak with Hamas. Hamas doesn't trust Egypt. So how is this negotiation working?

KELEMEN: It's not at all clear what sort of contacts the new government in Egypt has with Hamas. There are others who want to play a role and, you know, have their own domestic policy reasons for doing that. That includes, for instance, Turkey but also Qatar, which has a lot of financial influence with Hamas. It's where Hamas's political leader, Khaled Meshaal, is based. So, you know, those players want to play a role but U.S. officials point out that it's Egypt that borders Gaza. It's Egypt that controls the Rafah crossing, which is a key entry point for aide and everything. So it does have some influence, especially for any long-term solution here. And the U.S. and the Israelis seem to want Egypt to continue to play this central role. So what Kerry's aides told us on the plane on the way here is that his goal is to really get everybody on the same page and united around the Egyptian diplomatic effort.

MONTAGNE: And talk to us about where pressure is coming from for a cease-fire? Obviously, that would be the U.S., but Israel and Hamas don't seem interested.

KELEMEN: That's right. I mean, the pressure is definitely coming from the outside - from the United Nations, from these regional players that we're just talking about. For instance, the Arab League secretary-general met with Kerry today. And as they were sitting down for their meeting, he described the situation in Gaza as a massacre. He said people are dying in the streets in large numbers and he is hoping that Kerry's trip here will result in a cease-fire. And he's also hoping that Kerry manages to sort of get all of these different diplomatic efforts united and coalesced around the Egyptian plan.

MONTAGNE: And Michele, if, in fact, a cease-fire were to be realized - if the fighting stops, what happens then? Is Gaza and Israel back where it started from?

KELEMEN: Yeah, that's been one of the problems is that this region flares up every couple of years. And what Kerry's aides say is that they want a cease-fire first and then talk about the longer-term issues. I mean, he, himself, has said nothing's going to be resolved by a cease-fire alone without dealing with the underlying problems. He also met with Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, last night who said that Gaza's an open wound and Band-Aids won't help. That there has to be a plan for the aftermath that allows Gaza - in his words - to breathe and heal.

MONTAGNE: Thanks, Michele. That's NPR's Michele Kelemen traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry in Cairo.

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