Kerry does damage control as rockets fly

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Secretary of State John Kerry is hitting the phones to try and deescalate the conflict that is gripping the Middle East.

Kerry spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday morning and hoped to speak to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about the situation, according to the State Department. He has also been in touch with other world leaders from China, where he is visiting. 

On Wednesday, Israel's Defense Forces said that it had hit 160 terrorist targets in Gaza overnight. Reports have said at least 44 people died in those attacks.  

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Rockets launched into Israel, meanwhile, were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system on Wednesday near parts of Tel Aviv. Several missiles launched from Gaza a day earlier reportedly exploded in Jerusalem — about 50 miles north of Gaza. No casualties in Israel were reported. 

“Certainly we don’t want to see any civilian casualties,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, and that’s why the U.S. is “encouraging all sides to deescalate the situation.” 

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said Wednesday that it would close for the day and remain closed Thursday because of the rocket attacks. A day earlier, it said it would be operating at a minimal staffing level until further notice. 

White House coordinator for the Middle East Phil Gordon met with Abbas in the West Bank on Wednesday and key Israeli leaders in Jerusalem.

It’s unclear whether Kerry might fly to the region anytime soon — a trip he made repeatedly as he sought to bridge a peace agreement from July 2013 until the talks collapsed in April. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last Sunday suggested Kerry should be dispatched to Israel.

Violence between the two sides has dramatically escalated over the last two weeks after the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers were found and a Palestinian teen was killed in an attack that was thought to be retaliatory.

Israel has mobilized 40,000 reservists to send to the West Bank and Gaza border for an expanded operation. Israeli President Shimon Peres has suggested a ground operation might happen soon. 

Kerry has spoken to Netanyahu by phone at least three times in the last several days, Psaki said. He also spoke on Wednesday to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Mohammed Al Attiyah.

“[Kerry] commended him for his call for restraint this [past] weekend when he was meeting with his Cabinet,” she said, adding that Kerry expressed his concern as well.

Asked why Kerry is reaching out to other countries in the region, Psaki said “regional countries have a stake in the stability of the region.” 

—This story was updated at 4:29 p.m.