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Kerry cites progress in Gaza cease-fire talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Kerry is meeting with Ban, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as efforts for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel continues. (AP Photo/Pool) -
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Kerry is meeting with Ban, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as efforts for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel continues. (AP Photo/Pool)
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By The Associated Press

JERUSALEM - Offering the first glimmer of hope for a Gaza cease-fire, the United States on Wednesday said negotiations to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas militants are making some progress even if an end to more than two weeks of bloodshed is nowhere near.

"We certainly have made steps forward," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Jerusalem, where he was meeting for the second time this week with United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon. "There's still work to be done."

He did not offer any specifics about the progress he cited in his third day of talks with Mideast leaders. He was in Jerusalem shortly after landing in Tel Aviv on an Air Force jet — one day after the FAA banned commercial flights into Ben-Gurion Airport because of a Hamas rocket attack nearby.

The U.S., Israel and the European Union all consider Hamas a terrorist organization. But the U.N. does not, and Ban said he and Kerry were jointly lobbying officials in the region to push Hamas and Israel to a cease-fire as soon as possible.

"We don't have much time to wait and lose," Ban told reporters before the meeting with Kerry. Neither Ban nor Kerry answered media questions during their brief remarks.

Kerry also offered "profound gratitude" to what he described as 30,000 Israelis who spontaneously lined Jerusalem streets on Wednesday for the funeral procession of Israeli soldier Max Steinberg, a 24-year-old American citizen who grew up in Southern California's San Fernando Valley and was killed in the fighting. "That's a remarkable statement — we're very grateful," Kerry said.

Kerry also planned to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during what appeared to be a crucial day in the talks. U.S. officials have downplayed expectations for an immediate, lasting truce between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

At the least, Kerry's mission Wednesday sought to define the limits of what each side would accept in a potential cease-fire.

The FAA was going to reassess its ban on Ben-Gurion — which the State Department said does not apply to military aircraft — by midday Wednesday in Washington. The European Aviation Safety Agency also issued an advisory saying it "strongly recommends" airlines avoid the airport. Israeli officials said the precautionary U.S. step was unnecessary and "gave terror a prize" by reacting to Hamas' threats. It also prompted a complaint to Kerry by Netanyahu.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "The FAA is in close touch with Israel (and) continues to monitor and evaluate the situation."

More than 630 Palestinians and about 30 Israelis have been killed in the violence. Israel says its troops have killed hundreds of Hamas gunmen, while Gaza officials say the vast majority have been civilians, many of them children.

Israel and the U.S. back an unconditional cease-fire proposal that has been offered by Egypt, which would be followed by talks on a possible new border arrangement for Gaza. Israel and Egypt have severely restricted movement in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory in 2007.

But Hamas has rejected repeated Egyptian truce proposals. The militant group, with backing from its allies Qatar and Turkey, says it wants guarantees on lifting the blockade before halting its fire. In addition to discussions with Egypt officials, including President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Kerry spoke several times Tuesday from Cairo with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiya.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu said the international community must hold Hamas accountable for the latest round of violence, saying its refusal to agree to a cease-fire had prevented an earlier end to the fighting. He has long accused Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, of not wanting a two-state solution.

Egypt has also been negotiating with some Hamas officials, but relations between the two sides have been strained since Egypt outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, which has ties to Hamas, after last year's overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi.

At least some diplomats also see cease-fire negotiations as an opportunity to revitalize stalled peace talks between Israel and Palestinian authorities that were personally shepherded by Kerry but broke off last April following nearly nine months of frustrated attempts. Both Ban and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri have pushed for broader talks than the cease-fire negotiations, and Shukri on Tuesday specifically called for action "to set in motion once again the peace process that Secretary Kerry has been so actively involved in so as to end this ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis."

It's unlikely that Washington is ready to wade back into the morass of peace negotiations that broke off last April after nearly nine months of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry. But the new round of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants who control Gaza has reached the level of violence that U.S. officials warned last spring would happen without an enduring truce.

Kerry has stopped short of advocating a new round of peace talks. Still, he has left the door open for broad negotiations between Israel and Palestinian officials once a cease-fire is in place.

Israel launched a massive air campaign on July 8 to stop relentless Hamas rocket fire into Israel, and expanded it last week to a ground war aimed at destroying tunnels the military says Hamas has constructed from Gaza into Israel for attacks against Israelis. Israel has struck almost 3,000 sites in Gaza, killed more than 180 armed Palestinians and uncovered 66 access shafts of 23 tunnels, its military said.

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