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Kerry returns to Mideast to push for cease-fire as U.S. tones down criticism of Israel

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    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. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

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    Secretary of State John Kerry steps out of his vehicle early Monday to board his plane at Andrews Air Force Base as he begins his trip to the Middle East.

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    Palestinians launch fireworks during celebrations in the West bank city of Ramallah, late Sunday, July 20, 2014. The Hamas' armed wing said it has captured an Israeli soldier during fighting in the Gaza Strip. Speaking on a Hamas television station, spokesman Abu Ubaida said "we have captured a Zionist soldier and the occupation has not admitted that." The claim could not immediately be verified and the Israeli military said it was investigating the report. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

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    FILE - In this Thursday, April 24, 2014, file photo, Secretary of State John Kerry speaks in Washington. Kerry said Sunday, July 20, 2014, on NBC'S "Meet the Press" that Israel "has every right in the world to defend itself" from attacks by Hamas militants in Gaza, but the U.S. is working diligently to get an immediate cease-fire in place. He said Israel must protect its citizens, and that no nation "would sit there while rockets are bombarding it.’’ Kerry also says he believes that President Barack Obama will want him to return to the Mideast shortly to see if a cease-fire can be put in place. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

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    Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip.

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    Palestinian medics carry a man injured in Gaza City's Shijaiyah neighborhood that came under fire as Israel widened its ground offensive against Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday, July 20, 2014. Tens of people were killed in Shijaiyah and many more bodies were believed buried under the rubble of homes, health officials said. They are the latest casualties in a nearly two-week conflict that has killed some 380 Palestinians and seven Israelis. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

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    Palestinians dance while flying a Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement flag reading in Arabic "there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet," during celebrations in the West bank city of Ramallah, late Sunday, July 20, 2014. The Hamas' armed wing said it has captured an Israeli soldier during fighting in the Gaza Strip. Speaking on a Hamas television station, spokesman Abu Ubaida said "we have captured a Zionist soldier and the occupation has not admitted that." The claim could not immediately be verified and the Israeli military said it was investigating the report. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

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Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip.

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called Monday for the international community to focus on ending the fighting in the Gaza Strip, as Secretary of State John Kerry headed to the Middle East to make a renewed push for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.

Voicing fresh concern about civilian casualties, Obama reaffirmed his belief that Israel has the right to defend itself against rockets being launched by Hamas into Israel. Yet he contended that Israel’s military action in Gaza had already done “significant damage” to the Hamas terrorist infrastructure and said he doesn’t want to see more civilians getting killed.

“We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives,” Obama said. “And that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a ceasefire that ends the fighting and can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel.”

As Obama spoke from South Lawn of the White House, Kerry was flying to Cairo, where he planned to join diplomatic efforts to resume a truce that had been agreed to in November 2012. He will urge the militant Palestinian group to accept a cease-fire agreement offered by Egypt that would halt nearly two weeks of fighting. More than 500 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have been killed in that time.

The Obama administration, including Kerry, is sharpening its criticism of Hamas for its rocket attacks on Israel and other provocative acts, like tunneling under the border. It is also toning down an earlier rebuke of Israel for attacks on the Gaza Strip that have killed civilians, including children.

In a statement Sunday evening, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. and international partners were “deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation, and the loss of more innocent life.”

Two Americans, Max Steinberg of California and Nissim Carmeli of Texas, who fought for the Israel Defense Forces were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip. The State Department confirmed the names of the two U.S. citizens Sunday night.

Cairo’s cease-fire plan 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 said Hamas needs to recognize its own responsibility for the conflict.

“It’s ugly. War is ugly, and bad things are going to happen,” Kerry told ABC’s “This Week.”

Both Obama and Kerry have said Israel has a right to defend itself Kerry accused Hamas of attempting to sedate and kidnap Israelis through a network of tunnels that militants have used to stage cross-border raids.

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Secretary of State John Kerry steps out of his vehicle early Monday to board his plane at Andrews Air Force Base as he begins his trip to the Middle East.

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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.”

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.

U.S. officials said Hamas could bring relief to the Palestinian people if it agrees to a cease-fire proposed by Egypt — a view Netanyahu is pushing as well.

Netanyahu said in an ABC interview that Israel has tried to avoid killing Palestinian civilians by making phone calls, sending text messages and dropping leaflets on their communities. But Hamas doesn’t “give a whit about the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said. “All they want is more and more civilian deaths.”

The prime minister said his top goal is to restore a sustainable peace, but he then will ask the international community to consider demilitarizing Gaza to rid Hamas of its rockets and shut down the tunnels leading into Israel.

Kerry spoke Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CNN’s “State of the Union,” ABC’s “This Week,” CBS’ “Face the Nation” and “Fox News Sunday.”

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