Kerry meets with Netanyahu amid Israeli anger over ban on U.S. flights

The United States on Wednesday put the most direct pressure yet on its ally Israel to cut short its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, but Secretary of State John F. Kerry did not get a deal from Israel or the Palestinians to stop the bloodshed.

Despite a swirl of shuttle diplomacy, the war looked far from over Wednesday. Israeli leaders told their soldiers to prepare for an escalation inside the Gaza Strip, while the leader of Hamas vowed that his Islamist militant movement would not sign a permanent cease-fire until Israel ends its blockade of the coastal enclave.

Ordinary Israelis were upset with the United States and accused the Americans of cowardice after the Federal Aviation Administration, nervous that Hamas rockets have landed near Israel’s main airport, extended a ban on U.S. commercial flights to Tel Aviv. The decision was bad news for a small, image-conscious country such as Israel whose economy relies on international trade and tourism.

The FAA lifted the ban at 11:45 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.

Kerry met in Israel with on Wednesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was angry about the FAA action and suspicious that it was an attempt by the Obama administration to squeeze Israel to end its Gaza campaign.

But there were signs the fighting will get worse before it ends. While visiting troops preparing to enter the Gaza Strip, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon signaled that Israel will broaden its air and ground offensive beyond finding and destroying Hamas rockets and tunnels.

“We are preparing the next stages of the fighting after dealing with the tunnels, and you need to be ready for any mission,” Yaalon told the soldiers. “You need to be ready for more important steps in Gaza, and the units that are now on standby need to prepare to go in.”

The top Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, said his Islamist militant group, which controls the Gaza Strip but is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, will not sign any lasting cease-fire until Israel lifts its blockade of goods and frees Hamas prisoners.

“From Day One people told us, agree to a cease-fire and then negotiate on your demands,” Meshaal said at a news conference in Qatar, where Hamas maintains offices. “We reject this, and we reject it again tonight.”

But Meshaal did signal that a temporary “humanitarian truce” could still be possible.

U.S. officials are barred from direct meetings or negotiations with the militants.

Two senior State Department officials, who described Kerry’s discussions on the condition of anonymity, said the goal now is something that stops the fighting and opens the door for additional negotiations. Kerry returned to Cairo on Wednesday night.

Children paying a terrible price in Gaza

The heavy Israeli bombardment continued Wednesday along a broad front line that stretched the length of the Gaza Strip. In the 16-day conflict, 693 Palestinians have been killed, including 166 children and 67 women, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Thirty-two Israeli soldiers have been reported killed in fighting with Hamas and other Palestinian militant factions. Two Israeli civilians and a Thai guest worker have perished in rocket or mortar attacks launched from Gaza.

Israel says that one of its soldiers is still missing and believed dead. Hamas says it has captured the Israeli but has shown images only of his identification card, not of a body or prisoner.

On Wednesday, the funeral for an Israeli soldier who is also a U.S. citizen was attended by tens of thousand of mourners at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Israel’s version of Arlington National Cemetery.

Max Steinberg, 24, who grew up in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley and adored reggae great Bob Marley, was one of thousands of “lone soldiers” who have left their families behind elsewhere in the world to fight for the Israel Defense Forces.

Kerry arrived in Tel Aviv early Wednesday aboard a U.S. Air Force jet not bound by the FAA ban on travel to Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport.

The cessation of flights by U.S. and European carriers was a blow to Israel, which presents itself as a safe and secure place to visit and invest, no matter the chaos, revolution and war that beset its immediate neighbors.

At an emergency meeting in Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said both Hamas and Israel should be investigated in connection with attacks on civilian targets.

“There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes,” she said, citing as an example Israeli airstrikes this week against al-Aqsa Hospital in the Gaza Strip.

She also said that Hamas was firing rockets from heavily populated areas in Gaza and targeting civilian centers in Israel. Israel says that Hamas employs human shields and is responsible for the deaths of civilians.

The U.N. human rights commission voted to launch an investigation of Israel. Netanyahu’s office blasted the decision as “a travesty,” argued that it is Hamas that should be condemned and said the Israeli military “has gone to unprecedented lengths to keep Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way, including by dropping leaflets, making phone calls and sending text messages.”

Kerry claimed unspecified progress toward a goal of ending a conflict that is drawing rising international criticism of Israel, and by extension Washington, Israel’s most stalwart ally and defender.

“We have certainly made some steps forward,” Kerry said. “There is still work to be done.”

The complex diplomacy will require agreement between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to mediate the crisis on behalf of Hamas, after the bitter collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks in April.

As leader of all the Palestinians, Abbas is in a difficult position. He has been belittled by Israel and called an Israeli collaborator by Hamas supporters in Gaza. The United States hopes to somehow strengthen his hand.

Booth reported from Gaza City. Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's Kabul bureau chief since 2014. He was previously based in Nairobi and Baghdad for the Post.
William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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