Gaza conflict: US zigzag between support, criticism of Israel more pronounced

The State Department lashed out at Israel Sunday for what it called ‘disgraceful’ shelling of a refugee center. But two days earlier, President Obama had offered a full-throated defense of Israel’s Gaza offensive.

Tsafrir Abayov/AP
An Israeli soldier looks on the site near the Israeli Gaza border, where a man was injured from a mortar shell fired from the Gaza Strip, Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014.

In commenting last Friday on the Gaza conflict, President Obama said that Israel faces a “dilemma” between its right to defend itself and the risk of causing humanitarian disasters as it exercises that right by going after Hamas in Gaza.

But the Obama administration faces a stark dilemma of its own – between unflinchingly supporting Israel, an ally with strong political support in Washington, and emphasizing its humanitarian concerns as more than 1,800 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed in more than three weeks of fighting.

That dilemma, always at least under the surface, has burst into full view in recent days: The State Department lashed out at Israel Sunday for what it called “disgraceful” shelling of a United Nations-sponsored refugee center on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. But just two days earlier, Mr. Obama had offered a full-throated defense of Israel’s offensive and largely laid the blame for civilian casualties on Hamas.

The administration’s latest criticism of Israel does not signal a weakening of US support for its key Middle East ally: Before going on summer recess, Congress on Friday approved $225 million in administration-requested funding for Israeli munitions replenishment. Instead, the criticism reflects a longstanding vacillation by US administrations on Israel and its actions, some regional experts say.

“The administration finds itself being buffeted by two strongly supported but impossibly contradictory tendencies – historic sympathies and electoral pressures concerning Israel on the one hand, and on the other a traditional interest in addressing and trying to halt humanitarian crises,” says Wayne White, a longtime US Middle East diplomat who is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“Past administrations have shown the same kind of back and forth,” he adds, “though it’s usually been on a narrower band.”

Indeed, as often as Obama has repeated that “Israel has a right to defend itself” and “no country can accept rockets fired indiscriminately at its citizens,” administration officials have also admonished Israel for strikes in Gaza that have killed sometimes dozens of civilians.

Usually those admonishments have been accompanied by careful restatements of support, as when State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told CNN last week, “We’re going to stand by [the Israelis] as they fight this threat, but that doesn’t mean that when we think they could do more, we won’t say that.”

Israel’s missile strike Sunday near the entrance of a UN-sponsored school-turned-refugee-center in Rafah, killing at least 10 people, drew unequivocal outrage from the administration – and the world.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement, “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon railed against the strike as a “moral outrage” and “criminal act” and demanded that those responsible be held accountable.

Some foreign policy analysts saw in the harsh criticism of Israel an effort on the part of the administration not to look hypocritical to the world. After the United States has so intensely criticized the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for targeting bread lines in Syria’s civil war, they noted, it could hardly remain silent after Israel hit an emergency food line outside the Rafah UN shelter.

Also motivating the administration was the fact that Sunday’s strike was not the first of the Gaza conflict on a UN shelter, some say.

Last Wednesday, 21 displaced Palestinians sheltering in a UN school in Jabaliya were killed when the school was hit by an Israeli rocket. The Israeli military claimed it was aiming for fighters operating about 200 yards away from the school. Another Israeli strike on a school-turned-shelter in Beit Hanoun July 24 killed 16 Palestinians. Israel claimed the school was not targeted. It also said that the school’s courtyard was empty at the time of the strike and that therefore the mortar landing there could not have killed anyone.

Mr. White of the Middle East Institute says “the inevitable bifurcation of US foreign policy interests” over the Gaza conflict largely sets the US apart from the rest of the world, where “Hamas has become the hopeless underdog being pounded” by a superior military force.

But, he says, the US “zigzag” also suggests the Obama administration is trying to look ahead to the “day after” – the postconflict period when it will want to return to the diplomatic role that has been shunted aside during the intense and costly fighting.

On Monday evening, both Israel and Palestinian factions including Hamas were said to have accepted a 72-hour cease-fire proposed by Egypt and set to take effect Tuesday morning. Earlier Monday, Israel had begun withdrawing most of its ground troops from Gaza, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the offensive in Gaza would continue until a long-term “calm” was restored. 

“The US may be thinking about how the international community is going to deal with the tremendous humanitarian crisis that’s going to be there after the fighting is over,” White says. “Although with neither side suggesting it’s ready for concessions of any kind, it’s hard to see how anybody is going to be the broker that gets them to some kind of an agreement.”

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