Kerry Heads to Mideast After Calling Israel’s Gaza Offensive ‘a Hell of a Pinpoint Operation’

By Patrick Goodenough | July 20, 2014 | 8:20 PM EDT

Palestinian medics carry a wounded woman to an emergency room at Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Sunday, July 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to the Middle East to push for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, hours after appearing privately to call into question Israel’s stated attempts to be doing its best to avoid civilian casualties in its Gaza Strip operation.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Sunday night Kerry was going to Cairo Monday to support an Egyptian ceasefire effort, and said the U.S. and partners were “deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation, and the loss of more innocent life.”

Earlier, Kerry did the round of Sunday talk shows, where he discussed the Gaza and Ukraine crises. Between the interviews, Kerry was caught on an open camera and microphone, discussing the Gaza situation with an aide.

“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” Kerry remarked. “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation.”

The aide was heard saying that the escalating violence “just underscores the need for a ceasefire.”

Kerry then said that “we ought to go [to the region] tonight. I think it’s crazy to be sitting around.” Hours later Psaki confirmed that Kerry would indeed be returning to the region.

In response to the firing of hundreds of rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched an operation on July 8, initially limited to airstrikes but broadened on Thursday to a ground offensive after Hamas violated two ceasefires.

As of late Sunday, the reported Palestinian death toll stood at 436 while 18 IDF soldiers and two Israeli civilians had been killed. Claims by Hamas to have captured an Israeli soldier sparked fireworks and public celebrations in several Palestinian cities.

Israel says it is making every effort to avoid hurting civilians as it targets terrorists and terror infrastructure, accusing Hamas of intentionally putting them in harm’s way by firing rockets from civilian neighbors, schools, hospitals and mosques.

It says Hamas is also issuing messages on its media and social media outlets telling civilians to ignore IDF’s warnings of impending strikes and to remain in their homes. One IDF web page on the operation is headlined, “Pinpoint Strikes: Targeting Terrorists, Avoiding Civilians.”

On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace played a clip of the exchange between Kerry and his aide and then asked, “Secretary Kerry, when you said ‘it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,’ are you upset that the Israelis are going too far?”

Kerry voiced understanding for the “very difficult” situation faced by Israel.

“You have people who’ve come out of tunnels [to carry out attacks inside Israel]. You have a right to go in and take out those tunnels. We completely support that, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself against rockets that are continuing to come in,” he said.

“Hamas has started this process of rocketing after Israel was trying to find the people who killed three young – and one American kid, three young Israeli citizens. It’s disgraceful,” Kerry continued.

“And so, yeah, it’s tough. It’s tough to have this kind of operation, and I reacted obviously in a way that anybody does with respect to young children and civilians. But war is tough, and I said that publicly and I’ll say it again.”

Kerry noted that Israel had accepted an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire plan.

“It is important for Hamas to now step up and be reasonable and understand that you accept a ceasefire, you save lives, and that’s the way we can proceed to have a discussion about all of the underlying issues, which President Obama has clearly indicated a willingness to do.”

Israeli paratroopers mourn for Sgt. Bnaya Rubel, killed while fighting Palestinian militants in Gaza on Saturday, during his funeral in Holon, Israel on Sunday, July 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

‘Terror fortress’

In an interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Kerry was asked whether the U.S. was “comfortable” with Israeli actions to date.

“No country, no human being is comfortable with children being killed, with people being killed,” he replied. “But we’re not comfortable with Israeli soldiers being killed either, or with people being rocketed in Israel. So in war, it’s very difficult. There tends not to be a sort of equilibrium in terms of these things.

“The fact is that we’ve asked Israel and Israel has said we will try to reduce whatever we can with respect to civilian involvement, and civilians have been warned to move well ahead of time,” Kerry said. “The fact is that Hamas uses civilians as shields and they fire from a home and draw the fire into the home.”

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on ABC’s This Week that the IDF sought to avoid killing civilians, sending warnings and dropping leaflets before targeting a particular area, but charged that Hamas did not care about the lives of Palestinians.

“Hamas wants to kill civilians on the Israeli side, and the amazing grotesque and gruesome fact is they want to have as many civilians killed on the Palestinian side,” he said.

Netanyahu recalled that Israel had withdrawn entirely from Gaza in 2005, as had long been demanded by the international community, and handed it over to the Palestinian Authority.

But Hamas in 2007 violently “booted out” Mahmoud Abbas’ P.A. and turned the territory “into a terror fortress,” he said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow