US calls for Gaza probe, blasts Kerry’s critics

White House wants immediate investigation into shelling of UN school, but stops short of blaming Israel for attack

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Palestinians gather outside a classroom at the Abu Hussein UN school in Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, allegedly hit by an Israeli strike earlier, on Wednesday, July 30, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Palestinians gather outside a classroom at the Abu Hussein UN school in Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, allegedly hit by an Israeli strike earlier, on Wednesday, July 30, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

WASHINGTON – The White House expects a “a full, prompt and thorough investigation” into Wednesday’s shelling of a United Nations-run girls’ school in Gaza, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters during an impromptu press conference aboard Air Force One. Schultz’s statement underscored similar calls from the State Department, but unlike the UN, administration officials refused to ascribe blame to Israel for the incident that Gazan sources said left some 20 people dead.

Schultz seemed to dismiss statements from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon immediately pinning responsibility for the attack on Israel, which Ban accused of ignoring repeated communications on the location of the school.

The White House spokesperson said that he “understands” that “the UN has put out a statement on its views, but from our vantage point, we just want to underscore the importance of a full, prompt and thorough investigation.”

Instead, Schultz ducked calls to blame Israel for the incident while offering an ambiguous concern over “actions [that] violate the international understanding of the UN’s neutrality.”

“We are extremely concerned that the thousands of internally displaced Palestinians, who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes, are not safe in these UN-designated shelters in Gaza,” Schultz told reporters. “We also condemn those responsible for hiding weapons in the United Nations facilities in Gaza. All of these actions violate the international understanding of the UN’s neutrality.”

Schultz reiterated frequent administration statements that Washington “first and foremost believes in the Israeli government’s right to and obligation to defend their citizens,” but also echoed increasing calls from administration officials for Israel “to do more to live up to its own standards to limit the civilian casualties.”

Earlier Wednesday, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf ducked questions as to Israel’s culpability in the shelling.

“We don’t know for certain who shelled the school,” said Harf, explaining why she refused to explicitly blame Israel for the incident.

Harf said that Washington did not know if there were rockets stored in the school, but said that rather on relying on conclusions drawn by the UN, the US government would “attempt to get its own facts” regarding the incident. Rockets have been found hidden in UN schools in two separate incidents since the IDF began its ground operations in the Gaza Strip.

Israel and Hamas have traded accusations regarding responsibility for explosions in civilian areas in recent days.

During the State Department’s daily press briefing, Harf decried Israeli criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry while emphasizing that Kerry – and the United States – has given “unprecedented” support to Israel during its offensive against Hamas terror emanating from the Gaza Strip.

Harf lashed out during a the press briefing against “respected voices in Israel talking about the secretary of state, claiming that he supports Hamas, which is offensive and absurd,” claiming that information leaked in recent days was “designed to hurt our relationship.”

She argued that instead, Washington has granted Israel “a level of support which has been quite frankly unprecedented in our history” during Israel’s offensive against Hamas, emphasizing that Washington was “proud to stand with Israel.”

Kerry has been the focus of stinging criticism in both the Israeli and American press for his thus-far fruitless efforts to bring about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas during the month-long escalation of violence in the region. From US comedian Jon Stewart to prominent Israeli officials, Kerry’s strategy in securing a ceasefire with the help of Qatar and Turkey has been scrutinized since a ceasefire plan was leaked by Israeli officials on Friday.

Harf argued that “that kind of criticism coming from any ally, certainly Israel, just really has no place in this discussion.”

“It’s so disappointing, that it’s just so at odds with reality, and quite frankly, just flies in the face of everything we’ve been trying to do,” she said

Similar calls were made Monday by State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who complained that Israeli criticism of Kerry was “simply not the way partners and allies treat each other.”

Psaki said that the allegations were part of a “misinformation campaign” against Kerry, maligning his attempts to broker a ceasefire with the help of Qatari and Turkish officials.

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