Washington (AFP) - The United States is working for an "immediate" ceasefire in Gaza, President Barack Obama said Monday, as the White House called on Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians.
While Israel has the right to defend itself against a barrage of Hamas rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, Washington has "serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives," Obama said.
"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 that can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel," he said.
On a difficult mission to secure a truce, US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Cairo, which has mediated in past Israel-Palestinian conflicts and has taken the lead in trying to broker a ceasefire between Israel and its Islamist foe Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip.
The two-week conflict has dramatically escalated in recent days, with Israeli ground forces pushing into Gaza, where the Palestinian death toll stood at more than 570 as of late Monday.
More than 100,000 Palestinians had also been displaced from their homes, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said.
Israel must do more to protect Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire in the 14-day assault, the White House said.
"We would like the Israelis to take even greater steps to ensure the protection of civilians," spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
It was "unacceptable" for Hamas "to continue firing rockets squarely at Israeli civilians," he said.
"At the same time, we also want to make sure that Israel is doing everything that they can to live up to their own standards related to protecting the welfare and well-being of innocent civilian bystanders."
Obama noted that Israel had "already done significant damage to Hamas's terrorist infrastructure in Gaza," but US officials did not elaborate about what he was referring to.
Twenty-five Israeli soldiers, including two with dual US-Israeli citizenship, have also died, the army's worst death toll in years.
"The work will not be easy," Obama said of efforts to broker a ceasefire.
"Obviously, there are enormous passions involved in this, and some very difficult strategic issues involved," the president added, in a statement delivered from the White House.
"Nevertheless, I've asked John to do everything he can to help facilitate a cessation to hostilities. We don't want to see any more civilians getting killed."
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the US supported the Egyptian initiative, adding: "We do believe that there’s not another viable plan out there."
"I don’t think we would support something if we didn’t think it had a chance of succeeding," she added, hinting however that the US was open to some changes to the plan, saying she did not know what the "final format" would look like.