Giving Israel a Pass on Civilian Deaths

The Obama administration, which touts its “responsibility to protect” civilians when it wants to intervene somewhere in the world, went silent when Israel engaged in massive attacks on civilian targets in Gaza, killing hundreds of non-combatants including many children, notes Gareth Porter for Inter Press Service.

By Gareth Porter

United Nations officials and human rights organizations have characterized Israeli attacks on civilian targets during the IDF war on Gaza as violations of the laws of war. During the war, Israeli bombardment leveled whole urban neighborhoods, leaving more than 10,000 houses destroyed and 30,000 damaged and killing 1,300 civilians, according to U.N. data. Israeli forces also struck six schools providing shelter to refugees under U.N. protection, killing at least 47 refugees and wounding more than 340.

But the Obama administration’s public posture during the war signaled to Israel that it would not be held accountable for such violations. A review of the transcripts of daily press briefings by the State Department during the Israeli attack shows that the Obama administration refused to condemn Israeli attacks on civilian targets in the first three weeks of the war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows off photos that he claims justified the bombardment of Gaza. (Israeli government photo)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows off photos that he claims justified the bombardment of Gaza. (Israeli government photo)

U.S. officials were well aware of Israel’s history of rejecting any distinction between military and civilian targets in previous wars in Lebanon and Gaza. During the 2006 Israeli War in Lebanon, IDF spokesman Jacob Dalal had told the Associated Press that eliminating Hezbollah as a terrorist institution required hitting all Hezbollah institutions, including “grassroots institutions that breed more followers”.

And during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in December 2008 and January 2009, the IDF had shelled a school in the Jabaliya refugee camp, killing 42 civilians. The IDF’s justification had been that it was responding to mortar fire from the building, but officials of the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) who ran the school had denied that claim.

Given that history, Obama administration policy makers knew that Israel would certainly resort to similar targeting in its Gaza operation unless it believed it would suffer serious consequences for doing so. But the administration’s public stance in daily briefings in the early days of the war suggested little or no concern about Israeli violations of the laws of war.

On July 10, two days after the operation began, State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki was asked in the daily briefing whether the administration was trying to stop the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, as well as the firing of rockets by Hamas. Psaki’s answer was to recite an Israeli talking point.

“There’s a difference,” she said, “between Hamas, a terrorist organization that’s indiscriminately attacking innocent civilians in Israel, and the right of Israel to respond and protect their own civilians.”

After four children playing on a beach were killed as journalists watched on July 16, Psaki was asked whether the administration believed Israel was violating the international laws of war. She responded that she was unaware of any discussion of that question.

Psaki said that “tragic event makes clear that Israel must take every possible step to meet its standards for protecting civilians from being killed. We will continue to underscore that point to Israel; the Secretary [of State John Kerry] has made that point directly as well.”

The IDF shelled Al-Wafa Rehabilitation and Geriatric Hospital on July 17, claiming it was a response to launches of rockets 100 meters from the hospital. Psaki was asked the next day whether her failure to warn the Israelis publicly against bombing the hospital had “made any difference”.

She said, “We’re urging all parties to respect the civilian nature of schools and medical facilities.” But she refused to speculate about “what would’ve happened or wouldn’t have happened” had she issued an explicit warning,

On June 16, two days before the ground offensive began, the IDF began dropping leaflets warning the entire populations of the Zeitoun and Shujaiyyeh neighborhoods to evacuate. It was a clear indication they were to be heavily bombed. IDF bombing and shelling leveled entire blocks of Shujaiyyeh July 20 and 21, citing rockets fired from that neighborhood.

Kerry was recorded commenting to an aide on an open microphone July 20 that it was a “hell of a pinpoint operation,” revealing the administration’s private view. But instead of warning that the Israeli targeting policy was unacceptable, Kerry declared in a CNN interview that Israel was “under siege from a terrorist organization,” implying the right to do whatever it believed necessary.

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said on July 21 that Kerry had “encouraged” the Israelis to “take steps to prevent civilian casualties,” but she refused to be more specific.

On July 23, Al Wafa hospital was hit by an Israeli airstrike, forcing the staff to evacuate it. The IDF now charged that it had been used as a “command center and rocket launching site.” Joe Catron, an American who had been staying at the hospital as part of an international “human shield” to prevent attacks on it, denied that claim, saying he would have heard any rocket launched close to the hospital.

On the same day, three missiles hit a park next to the Al Shifa hospital, killing 10 and wounding 46. The IDF blamed the explosions on Hamas rockets that had fallen short. The idea that three Hamas rockets had fallen short within such short distances from one another, however, was hardly a credible explanation.

The IDF also appeared to target facilities run by the UNRWA. On July 23 and 24, Israeli tank shells hit Palestinian refugees at two different school compounds designated as U.N. shelters, despite intensive communications by U.N. officials to IDF asking to spare them.

An attack on a U.N. refugee shelter at Beit Hanoun elementary school July 24 killed 15 civilians and wounded more than 200. The IDF again claimed a Hamas rocket had fallen short. But it also claimed Hamas fighters had fired on Israeli troops from the compound, then later retreated from the claim.

At the July 24 briefing, Harf read a statement deploring the Beit Hanoun strike and the “rising death toll in Gaza” and said that a UNRWA facility “is not a legitimate target.” Harf said Israel “could do a bit more” to show restraint. But when a reporter asked if the United States was “willing to take any kind of action” if Israel did not respond to U.S. advice, Harf said the U.S. focus was “getting a ceasefire,” implying that it was not prepared to impose any consequences on Israel for refusing to change its military tactics in Gaza.

On July 25, a reporter at the daily briefing observed that the hospital and schools had been targeted despite reports confirming that there had been no militants or rockets in them. But Harf refused to accept that characterization of the situation and repeated the Israeli line that Hamas had used U.N. facilities to “hide rockets.” She said she could not confirm whether there were rockets in “the specific school that was hit.”

The IDF hit another UNRWA school sheltering refugees at Jabaliya refugee camp July 30, killing 10 and wounding more than 100. The IDF acknowledged it had fired several tank shells at the school, claiming again that mortar shells had been fired from there.

That was too much for the Obama administration. White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the attack “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible” and even made it clear that there was little doubt that Israel was responsible. Even then, however, the administration merely repeated its call for Israel to “do more to live up to the high standards that they have set for themselves,” as Earnest put it.

On Aug. 3, the IDF struck yet another refugee facility at the Rafah Boys Prep School A, killing 12 refugees and wounding 27. The IDF said it had been targeting three “terrorists” riding a motorcycle who had passed near the school. “The suspicion that militants operated nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians,” said Psaki.

But that criticism of Israeli attacks was far too restrained and too late. The IDF had already carried out what appear to have been massive violations of the laws of war.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. He can be contacted at [email protected]

7 comments for “Giving Israel a Pass on Civilian Deaths

  1. rosemerry
    August 14, 2014 at 16:52

    boring rat again!
    1. Believe it or not, Hamas DOES warn civilians, and ONLY ONE has been killed as he delivered food to “IDF”soldiers.
    2. no “human shield” works unless the attacker is humane, which is obviously false about Israelis, who have killed over 450 children. Not exactly a shield.
    3. warning, with 57 secs notice and no shelters to run to (unless the Israelis in no danger)????? bombs to warn of bigger bombs??
    4. Try to find facts not lies.

  2. Zachary Smith
    August 14, 2014 at 12:04

    In my previous post I opined that BHO didn’t have much leverage with Israel. More evidence of that:

    When Walt and Mearsheimer published their book on the Israel lobby in 2007, I thought, they’ve scratched the surface, we don’t know the half of it. Well here you go, friends. The Wall Street Journal reports today that even as Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were trying to brake Israel during the slaughter in Gaza, Israel relied on its “allies” in “Congress and elsewhere in the administration” to dip into American weapons stocks to refill its guns, without Obama’s approval.

    The shitty little nation on the east end of the Mediterranean holds the US in total contempt. And rightly so, IMO.

  3. Daniel Pfeiffer
    August 13, 2014 at 13:07

    I appreciate the solid reporting here (and everywhere on this site), but documenting the crimes of our ‘leaders’, while important, does not seem to be changing anything. It is vital, to be sure, but it doesn’t seem to pierce that fortress called the MSM. And citizens, so emotionally & psychologically dependent upon the pretty lies told to them by the MSM now, are incapable of even recognizing the truth.

    So it is time to elevate the story to the never-ending pattern of lawbreaking and lying that accompanies it. It’s the only story now, because it’s all that happens. This story is greater than this tragedy or that, which serve as examples, and one of consistent abuse and deception by those in power. This is the ‘truth’ we need to see, understand and debate. Or else we will continue on as we have – blind to what our government does and wasting time debating the cover stories they feed us through the media.

    • Ky in the sky
      August 13, 2014 at 16:26

      Unfortunately, the masses have been conditioned to brush off and dismiss the notion of government deception. This has been a multi-generational process and is now at a point where the general public seems to expect lies and deception from the “elected official” in power….

      Sad but true reality… The tides are, however, turning as the evils become more blatant and inescapable. People are slowly waking up to the fact that allowing these actions to continue will eventually hit them where it hurts.

  4. Zachary Smith
    August 13, 2014 at 11:12

    The US Congress is clearly in the pocket of the Israelis. I’d say the major reason for this is fear. When a congressperson gets too much out of line, a well-funded opponent is likely to come out of the woodwork and challenge him. In the case of Cynthia McKinney, a loud voice against Israel was actually defeated by the previously unknown Denise Majette.

    “Majette, who had never run in a partisan contest before, trounced the seemingly entrenched McKinney by a 58% to 42% margin.”

    Irritate Israel, and you’re likely to lose your cushy job in DC. Behave, and they’ll either let you be, or even throw some easy money your direction.

    These days I expect there is an even more important factor. Israel has access to basically all of US intelligence. The mass of information those intelligence services have collected from listening to every telephone call and email, monitoring of every internet connection; all that is going to provide plenty of potential for blackmail. (which may also explain why Congress is also very quiet about the NSA and CIA)

    So when Israel says ‘FROG’, the US congress jumps.

    BHO is subject to the same blackmail as the congressmen, and that may be a minor factor regarding him. But another group is holding his strings, and as long as events in Gaza and surrounding areas doesn’t cost them anything, they don’t care either. So neither does their dark-skinned smooth-talking puppet.

    Besides, even if he did ‘grow a pair’, he’d be instantly overridden by the despicable congress. Probably he’d be facing impeachment. So it’s in his (and his backers) interest to keep his lip zipped about Israel.

    That’s the way I see it.

    • Tom Welsh
      August 14, 2014 at 15:41

      Doesn’t this effectively mean that the Congress of the USA has passed into the control of a foreign government?

      Is that a bad thing? Lincoln didn’t speak about “government of the people, by bought-and-paid-for political hacks, for Israel”.

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