Cross-posted from Consortium News
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.
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.