Obama takes tougher line against Gaza casualties
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration condemned the deadly shelling of a United Nations school in Gaza Wednesday, using tough yet carefully worded language that reflects growing White House irritation with Israel and the mounting civilian casualties stemming from its ground and air war against Hamas.
The U.S. frustrations were compounded by a flurry of Israeli media reports this week that appeared aimed at discrediting President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent days trying to negotiate an unsuccessful cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. In unusually blunt language, a State Department spokeswoman on Wednesday repeatedly described one report as “complete crap.”
The developments injected fresh tension into the often fraught relationship between Obama and the Israeli government, while also highlighting the president’s willingness to take a tougher line against the longtime U.S. ally than some of his predecessors or lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
While Obama and other top officials consistently state their support for Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rocket fire, the White House has been making increasingly strong statements about the Palestinian civilians dying in Israeli attacks. Officials have also directly called on Israel to do more to prevent the casualties.
More than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in three weeks of fighting, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. More than 50 Israelis have also died in the clashes.
The White House escalated its rhetoric yet again on Wednesday by condemning the shelling of the U.N. school that was sheltering displaced Palestinians. While the administration did not publicly assign blame for the attack, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “all available evidence” pointed to Israel and the Israeli military acknowledged that it fired back after its soldiers were targeted by mortar rounds launched from the vicinity of the school.
“We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in U.N. designated shelters in Gaza,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council. She condemned “those responsible for hiding weapons in the United Nations facilities in Gaza” – a nod to Israel’s charge that Hamas is housing arms in those facilities.
The administration’s charged language is in contrast to the posture from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, who are pressing the White House to take no action that pressures Israel to halt its military operations. Lawmakers are also seeking to push through a $225 million missile defense package for Israel.
Despite concerns about casualties, the administration is helping Israel resupply its ammunition stockpiles. A defense official said the U.S. offered to provide mortar rounds and grenades from a depot it maintains in Israel.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Yaalon, about the Gaza crisis Wednesday. Hagel’s spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Yaalon thanked Hagel for U.S. financial support for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system, and Hagel reiterated U.S. concern about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza.
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