In Cairo, First Steps Taken On Gnarled Path To Gaza Cease-Fire

Secretary of State John Kerry has finished his first full day in Cairo, where he's trying to help forge a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to Cairo, where Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats are trying to bring an end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Kerry made a brief public statement today. He said the talks have been constructive but there's more work to do.

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JOHN KERRY: So that's where we are right now but we know with clarity where we need to be. And for the sake of thousands of innocent families, whose lives have been shaken and destroyed by this conflict, on all sides, we hope we can get there as soon as possible.

CORNISH: NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and joins us now. And first of all Michele, neither Hamas nor Israel seem to be interested in a cease-fire at the moment. So why did Secretary Kerry think the time is right?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, I think mainly the conflict has gone on for two weeks now and there is a sense of urgency in the international community over the high civilian death toll. I mean, the Arab League secretary-general, when he met with Kerry, here in Cairo today, called the situation a massacre. In addition the rocket attacks continue. U.S. officials do believe that Israel has degraded Hamas capabilities and there's an eager negotiator - Egypt, which put out a cease-fire proposal on the table last week.

CORNISH: And obviously it's a complicated picture in the Middle East right now. Hamas doesn't trust Egypt, the U.S. doesn't talk to Hamas, which is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, so what can Kerry really do in Cairo?

KELEMEN: Well, he's trying to unify regional players around this Egyptian proposal but as you said, the Egyptians don't have the kind of contacts they had under past governments, under the previous government with Hamas. And on the other hand you have Qatar, for intense, which has its own ideas how to resolve this. Hamas's political leader lives in Qatar, Qatar has financial leverage with Hamas too. So Secretary Kerry has been sort of caught in between those two countries on this, while he's been here in Cairo he's been on the phone with Qatari officials. The U.S. does seem to want Egypt to play the leading role though and that's why he came here first.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, would a cease-fire just bring the region back to where it was before?

KELEMEN: Well, that's one of the concerns. I mean, the idea is to stop the fighting and then start talking about the underlying issues. Hamas really wants the siege of Gaza lifted before it stops firing rockets. That's not something the U.S. or Egypt at this point would really agree to. And here again, Audie, Egypt is really key because it borders Gaza and it controls the Rafah crossing. So it's going to be key in these longer-term discussions. So what the U.S. wants to do - what Kerry's trying to do here, is try to get to a cease-fire and then begin talks on how to manage that crossing point, how to help Gaza and the Palestinians living there recover. He says he understands that a cease-fire alone isn't going to help but a cease-fire is really the starting place for those kind of broader discussions on these very complicated issues facing Israel and the Palestinians.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen in Cairo. Michele, thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Audie.

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