by Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, July 23 (Xinhua) -- Fighting continues to rage three days into a U.S. push to halt the crisis in Gaza, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arriving in Israel Wednesday in a bid to negotiate a ceasefire.
Hostilities began when Hamas started shooting rockets into Israeli population centers, which sparked an Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip to stop the attacks. Casualties in Gaza continued to mount Wednesday with no end in sight as Kerry began his trip to the embattled region with talks with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and later meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Kerry has stressed that he will not only press for a ceasefire but also try to put a framework in place for a deal that would prevent renewed fighting between the two sides from breaking out every few years.
But Kerry will have to put together a coalition of third parties to act as intermediaries, and key player Egypt has lost credibility with Hamas due to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's dogged opposition of militant Islam.
"There is no question that Egypt has little influence over Hamas under the new government. Still, Egypt remains a key player in this conflict because it has the ability to deliver on at least one of Hamas' key demands -- the opening of the border at Rafah," Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation, told Xinhua. She was referring to the main passage between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
Moreover, Egypt is still the only regional mediator trusted by the Israelis, so Kerry has to keep up engagement with the Egyptians even if the chances of a Cairo-brokered cease-fire appear dim at present, Kaye added.
Turkey and Qatar are the two regional players that have kept up close ties with Hamas and have expressed interest in trying to broker a cease-fire. But Turkey's relations with Israel have deteriorated due to widespread protests against Israel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's critical comments against the Israeli offensive.
But Turkey is not likely to emerge as a key player in a cease- fire effort, as Turkey is preoccupied with other pressing regional crises close to home in Syria and Iraq. The prospects that Qatar might play a role are greater, at least in terms of helping communicate Hamas' demands to the U.S., given Hamas' leader is currently in exile in Qatar, Kaye said.
As for the U.S., Washington's credibility with the Palestinians has eroded since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War when former U.S. President Richard Nixon set up an airlift to provide critical military aid to Israel. More recently, since the 1997-2000 collapse of the 1990's Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Palestinians' image of the U.S. has been hurt because of Washington's close ties with Israel regardless of recent hardliner governments, Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department's Middle East Intelligence Office, told Xinhua.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington, active U.S. opposition and military action against Islamic militants that stem from similar roots as Hamas has forced the U.S. to deal with Hamas from afar through intermediaries. The U.S. is also one of the nations embargoing Hamas, White noted.
NEITHER SIDE READY TO STAND DOWN
At the moment, neither side is likely to stand down, and there are no signals that the conflict will end soon, although some experts believe Israel is willing to consider a deal.
"Israel was already willing to accept the Egyptian cease-fire, but that plan did not offer Hamas any of its demands and was rejected. But it shows that Israel is interested in ending the fighting if it leaves Hamas further weakened and stops the rocket fire," Kaye said.
On Friday, U.S. Barack Obama told reporters he supports Israel' s ground incursion, but urged the Jewish state to minimize civilian casualties in a conflict that has already caused nearly 700 collateral deaths of Palestinian civilians, according to the latest figures from The Gaza-based Health Ministry.