Obama tells Israel U.S. ready to help end hostilities

By Mark Felsenthal
Israeli firefighters put out fire on burning cars in an apartment building parking lot after it was hit by what Israeli police say was a rocket fired by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, in Ashdod
Israeli firefighters work to put out fire on burning cars in an apartment building parking lot after it was hit by what Israeli police say was a rocket fired by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, in Ashdod July 10, 2014. At least 77 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in Israel's Gaza offensive, Palestinian officials said on Thursday, and militants kept up rocket attacks on Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities in warfare showing no signs of ending soon. REUTERS/ Avi Rokach (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) ISRAEL OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN ISRAEL

By Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama expressed concern to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday about the risk of an escalation of hostilities in the region and said the United States was ready to help bring them to an end, the White House said.

"The United States remains prepared to facilitate a cessation of hostilities, including a return to the November 2012 ceasefire agreement," the White House said Obama told Netanyahu in a phone call.

Obama reiterated U.S. condemnation of rocket fire into Israel by Hamas and reaffirmed Israel's right to defend itself against the attacks, the White House said.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to his Egyptian counterpart in an attempt to get Egypt to use its influence to calm the situation, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

"Part of the secretary's effort has been reaching out to countries in the region, including Qatar, including Egypt," Psaki said at a briefing earlier in the day.

"Any country in the region that can play a role in bringing an end to the rocket fire from Hamas, we're certainly going to be engaged with."

The U.S. government refuses to negotiate directly with Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist organization.

Egypt played a crucial role in mediating an Israel-Hamas ceasefire in 2012.

A senior U.S. official said Kerry's phone call with Egypt's foreign minister was a discussion about how to reduce tensions between Israel and Hamas and "how to influence Hamas if that's possible."

The Israelis "know we have been in touch with Egypt and Qatar" to seek help in calming the situation in Gaza, the official said.

(With additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Peter Cooney)