After an Israeli airstrike near a UN shelter which killed at least 10 people on Sunday, the State Department issued a statement saying: “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby [a UN shelter] does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”
From day one in the current war, Israel has attempted to absolve itself for responsibility for civilian casualties by arguing that they are “human shields.” What the State Department finally made clear is that describing civilians as human shields does not make their lives expendable.
The State Department has understood this legal fact from day one but it waited almost a month before asserting this with any force. And even while the Obama administration caught the media’s attention in the last few days for voicing “harsh” criticism of the Israelis, it did so at the very same time as replenishing Israel’s supply of munitions.
The New York Times reports:
For all its outrage over civilian casualties, the United States steadfastly backs Israel’s right to defend itself and shares Israel’s view that Hamas is a terrorist organization. In a world of bitter enmities, the Israeli-American dispute is more akin to a family quarrel.
The White House seems determined to tamp down the latest eruption in tensions. “The nature of our relationship is strong and unchanged,” the press secretary, Josh Earnest, told reporters on Monday, pointing to comments by Mr. Netanyahu over the weekend, in which he said, “I think the United States has been terrific.”
The two statements are part of a recurring pattern for this administration: an angry outburst, followed by calmer words and the grudging recognition that little is going to change in the fundamental relationship between the United States and its closest ally in the Middle East.
Disputes between the United States and Israel are hardly new. President Ronald Reagan sold Awacs surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia over Israel’s fierce objections. George H.W. Bush held up loan guarantees because of Israeli settlement construction. Bill Clinton fumed after his first Oval Office encounter with a newly elected Israeli prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu.
But the chronic nature of this tension is unusual — and, according to current and former officials, rooted in ill will at the very top. “You have a backdrop of a very acrimonious relationship between the president and the prime minister of Israel,” said Robert M. Danin, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
While tensions between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu only occasionally spill into the open, Mr. Kerry became the subject of very public and vitriolic — albeit anonymous — criticism from Israeli officials for his efforts two weeks ago to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. His proposal, the officials said, was tilted in favor of Hamas and did not do enough to protect Israel’s security.
Mr. Kerry, American officials responded, based his efforts on an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that had already been accepted by the Israelis. He submitted his ideas to the Israelis, anticipating that they would have concerns. Whatever the precise circumstances, Mr. Kerry found himself excoriated across the political spectrum in Israel.
At the White House, officials were incensed by what they saw as shabby treatment of Mr. Kerry, a loyal friend of Israel. In addition to the cease-fire and the peace talks, they noted, Mr. Kerry went to bat for Israel with the Federal Aviation Administration after it imposed a ban on commercial flights to Tel Aviv following a rocket attack near Ben-Gurion International Airport.
What does batting for Israel against the FAA mean? That at a moment when Israel seemed particularly vulnerable, the Secretary of State for the United States thought that it was his job to place the interests of Israel’s economy above those of his own citizens.
Now that a ceasefire has tentatively taken hold, the U.S. role in negotiations in Cairo, nominally promoting mediation yet predictably operating as Israel’s most loyal supporter, is to make sure that Israel’s interests take precedence above all others.
It is in Israel’s interests that it now contrive an expression of its humanitarian concerns — that after having flattened many parts of Gaza it will pay lip service to the need to consider the welfare of the population.
Yet there seems little doubt that even if the siege is “eased” is various ways, Israel’s war against Gaza will continue.