The Obama administration condemned the deadly shelling of a United Nations school in Gaza on 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 Wednesday repeatedly described one of the reports 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.
Though 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 also have died in the clashes.
The White House escalated its rhetoric yet again Wednesday by condemning the shelling of the U.N. school that was sheltering displaced Palestinians. Though 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 UN designated shelters in Gaza,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council. She also 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.
Obama has had an up-and-down relationship with Israel from the start of his presidency. Israeli officials balked at what they saw as overly harsh criticism of their settlement policy and have been deeply skeptical of Obama’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also have struggled to develop a rapport, with the Israeli leader at one point lecturing his U.S. counterpart in the Oval Office in front of reporters, photographers and television cameras.
Yet their relationship appeared to be on the upswing last year when Obama made his first visit to Israel as president.