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Kerry heads to Mideast in bid for cease-fire

By Lara Jakes

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 20 2014 9:45 p.m. MDT

Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Sunday, July 20, 2014. A Gaza City neighborhood came under heavy tank fire Sunday as Israel widened its ground offensive against Hamas, causing hundreds of panicked residents to flee.

Adel Hana, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry is heading back to the Middle East as the Obama administration attempts to bolster regional efforts to reach a ceasefire and sharpens its criticism of Hamas in its conflict with Israel.

The State Department said Kerry would leave early Monday for Egypt where he will join diplomatic efforts to resume a truce that had been agreed to in November 2012. In a statement Sunday evening, department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the U.S. and international partners "deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation, and the loss of more innocent life."

The Obama administration has toned down its earlier rebuke of Israel for attacks on the Gaza Strip that have killed civilians, including children, although both President Barack Obama and Kerry expressed concern about the rising death toll.

The U.S. will urge the militant Palestinian group to accept a cease-fire agreement that would halt nearly two weeks of fighting with Israel. More than 430 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have been killed in that time.

Two Americans who fought for the Israel Defense Forces were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip — Max Steinberg, 24 of Southern California's San Fernando Valley and Nissim Carmeli of South Padre Island, Texas. The State Department's Psaki confirmed the names of the two U.S. citizens.

Stuart Steinberg earlier told The Associated Press Sunday that his 24-year-old son Max, 24, had been killed. Steinberg was a sharpshooter for the Golani Brigade. Earlier Sunday, the IDF said in a statement that Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, was killed in combat in the Gaza Strip. Deputy Consul General of Israel to the Southwest, Maya Kadosh, said Carmeli moved to Israel four years ago and added that the consulate helped his family get a flight there Sunday.

Cairo has offered a cease-fire plan that is backed by the U.S. and Israel. But Hamas has rejected the Egyptian plan and is relying on governments in Qatar and Turkey for an alternative proposal. Qatar and Turkey have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is also linked to Hamas but banned in Egypt.

Making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, Kerry pointed to Hamas' role in the violence.

"It's ugly. War is ugly, and bad things are going to happen," Kerry told ABC's "This Week." But, he added, Hamas needs "to recognize their own responsibility."

Both Obama and Kerry said Israel has a right to defend itself against frequent rocket attacks by Hamas from the Gaza Strip. Kerry accused Hamas of attempting to sedate and kidnap Israelis through a network of tunnels that militants have used to stage cross-border raids.

He said on CNN's "State of the Union" that Hamas must "step up and show a level of reasonableness, and they need to accept the offer of a cease-fire."

Then, Kerry said, "we will certainly discuss all of the issues relevant to the underlying crisis."

The nearly two-week conflict appeared to be escalating as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was already in the region to try to revive cease-fire efforts.

Obama, in a telephone call Sunday, told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Kerry was coming to the Mideast and condemned Hamas' attacks, according to a White House statement.

The U.N. relief agency in Gaza estimates that 70,000 Palestinians have fled their homes in the fighting and are seeking shelter in schools and other shelters the United Nations has set up. The relief agency's top director in Gaza, Robert Turner, told CNN's "State of the Union" that the U.N. has run out of mattresses for refugees and few hygiene and medical supplies are left, although fresh food and water remain available.

"People are scared," Turner said. "They don't feel safe at home, they don't feel safe with their families or neighbors. They feel relatively safe in our installations. ... We frankly have been overwhelmed by the numbers."

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