WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State John Kerry told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the US strongly supports Israel’s right to defend itself against threats posed by the Gaza tunnels dug into Israel and urged Israel to limit its ground operation to a precision offensive against the tunnels, the State Department revealed late Thursday evening.

In a statement following a Thursday afternoon phone call between Netanyahu and Kerry as Israel launched a ground offensive into Gaza, State Department officials said that “the secretary reaffirmed [the US’s] strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist threats emanating from tunnels into Israel and expressed our view that this should be a precise operation to target tunnels, as described in a statement from the Israeli Defense Forces.”

During the call, Netanyahu briefed Kerry on the attempted terrorist attack that was thwarted near Kibbutz Sufa on Thursday morning, and emphasized what the State Department described as “the imminent threat to Israeli civilians posed by Hamas tunnels from the Gaza Strip.”

Netanyahu discussed with Kerry his decision to launch a ground operation to target the threat of further terrorist infiltration through tunnels into Israel.

According to State Department officials, in addition to offering support for the operation against Hamas’s underground networks, Kerry “emphasized the need to avoid further escalation and to restore the 2012 ceasefire as soon as possible.”

A picture released by the Israeli Defense Forces shows weapons found inside a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa in the Israeli Gaza border on July 17, 2014 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's office/Flash90)

A picture released by the Israeli Defense Forces shows weapons found inside a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa in the Israeli Gaza border on July 17, 2014 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s office/Flash90)

The secretary of state also reiterated Washington’s “continuing commitment to the Egyptian initiative as the way” to restore the ceasefire, while emphasizing that it was important for Hamas to accept the plan “as soon as possible.”

The statement came a day after State Department officials were pressed as to whether the US had only cool support for the Egyptian proposal, which was reportedly brokered with the help of Quartet representative and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

On Tuesday, Israel agreed to abide by the Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire, but Hamas refused, continuing to launch rockets at Israeli cities.

In his conversation with Netanyahu, Kerry also reiterated US concern about the safety and security of civilians on both sides and the importance of doing everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.
Kerry’s comments followed a strongly-worded statement issued by State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki casting doubt as to whether Israel was really taking all steps possible to avoid civilian casualties.

After two separate incidents of Gazan children being killed were reported in as many days, Psaki said that the State Department was “increasingly concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides” and said that the US was “asking for a redoubling of efforts moving forward to prevent civilian casualties given the events of the past couple days.”

Psaki told reporters that Kerry had addressed the issue in a call with Netanyahu earlier in the week. “We believe there is more that can be done” to protect civilians, Psaki said.

Expanding on her reaction to Wednesday’s killing of four Gazan children playing by the city’s fishing pier, Psaki described the US as “heartbroken” by reports of children’s deaths, and that – regarding the specific incident Wednesday – “the reports were horrifying, the photos were horrifying and the video was horrifying.”

Psaki said State Department officials, including Kerry, “were heartened to see the statement by President Shimon Peres in which he spoke to the deaths of these children” but underscored the fact that they did not consider Peres’s statement to be a condemnation of the children’s deaths.