After an 2014 Israeli strike in Gaza which accidentally killed ten people the State Department lashed out at Israel saying, “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.” This past weekend American planes on a mission to bomb the enemy in Afghanistan accidentally hit a doctors without borders hospital killing 22 people.
Matt Lee of the AP and IMHO the best reporter on the State Dept. beat, asked a simple question. Does the bombing mission in Afghanistan represent a change in policy from what State had admonished Israel about the year before?
In August 2014 the IDF was faced with a barrage of mortar fire from the Gaza city of Rafah sent from an area surrounding a UNRWA school. A precision-guided missile, launched from the air by the IDF, struck the road outside the school, five to six meters from the school gate. Ten people who were on the school grounds near the gate were killed. The US State Department rushed to condemn Israel (the didn’t condemn Hamas for using the school as a human shield or UNRWA for allowing their school to be used).
Jen Psaki gave the statement of admonishment from the State Dept.
The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which at least ten more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed. The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israeli Defense Forces. We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties. UN facilities, especially those sheltering civilians, must be protected, and must not be used as bases from which to launch attacks. The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians. We call for a full and prompt investigation of this incident as well as the recent shelling of other UNRWA schools.
On October 3, Afghan forces called in an American airstrike because they were taking fire from enemy positions. Those positions were close to a doctors without borders hospital which was accidentally hit killing 12 medical staff members and at least 10 patients.
When Matt Lee of the Associated Press asked State Dept. deputy spokesman Mark Toner if the Afghan bombing was a change in policy, Mr. Toner was totally lost for words. What he couldn’t say was the admonishment of Israel wasn’t policy the Obama administration looks for any excuse to criticize Israel and that Matt Lee had exposed their hypocrisy.
Below is a transcript of Lee’s questioning of Toner (and below that a video of the exchange). Notice the look on Toner’s face each time the AP reporter pressed the question. The poor guy looked like a deer frozen by a car’s headlights (he never did answer Lee’s question).
Lee: Right. I want to start in Afghanistan.
Lee: I realize that the Pentagon has already spoken to this —
Lee: — as has your colleague at the White House. And I do understand I’m coming at this with understanding that the State Department is probably somewhat limited and – well, first of all didn’t really have – play any role in what happened in Kunduz. But also because of the investigation that’s underway, I understand you’re going to – you’re not going to have much to say beyond what has already been said.
Lee: But what I want to ask about is just Administration policy in general. So not that long ago – in fact, just a little over a year ago, in August of 2014 – Israel, during the Gaza conflict, was accused of and, in fact, did bomb a – an UNRWA school in Gaza that killed about 10 people – or did kill 10 people. At the time, this building – in fact, the spokeswoman – issued a statement that was very, very strong, saying, “The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced people. The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israeli Defense Forces. We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties. UN facilities, especially those sheltering civilians, must be protected and must not be used by bases from which to launch attacks.”
And then the sentence that’s key here, and this is what I want to ask about, it says, “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.” And then it goes on to call for an investigation. So I just want to – let me see – is it Administration – still Administration policy that the suspicion that militants are operating nearby a site like this, which is a school, that that suspicion does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of innocent civilians? Is that still the Administration’s position?
Toner: Well, first of all, I just would like to add the State Department’s voice to what the President and Department of Defense have already said. We mourn, obviously, the loss of life at the Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz which occurred on October 3rd. It goes without saying these doctors perform heroic work throughout the world including in Afghanistan, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families, friends, and colleagues of those affected by this tragic incident.
You’re asking about whether our policy has changed. We always take great care and we are very adamant about stating when we see elsewhere attacks in areas where there could be civilian casualties to avoid civilian casualties. That obviously stands. That’s – there’s no other, frankly, country or government that takes greater care to investigate incidents like this, to hold folks accountable, and to try to take every measure possible to avoid civilian casualties.
What we’re looking at right now in terms of what happened in Kunduz, the facts are still emerging. There’s, I think, now three investigations underway: one by the Department of Defense, one by Resolute Support, and I think one joint Afghan and U.S. investigation. So we’ll let those investigations run their course.
But generally, these are difficult situations. It was, I think – General Campbell spoke to this as well, saying that it was an active combat zone and just trying to put that in the framework that they were called into – that air strikes were called in, without necessarily even saying that these were the airstrikes that hit that hospital, because we don’t know yet. We’re still collecting the facts.
Lee: Well —
Toner: But in speaking to your – sorry, your specific question – I mean, of course, we take every measure possible and would encourage any government in the world to take any measure possible – every measure possible – every measure possible to avoid civilian casualties, even when that involves close-quarter combat.
Lee: Right. I understand that and I understood —
Lee: But my question was not about the idea – and I’m not challenging the idea that you take – that the military makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties. What I’m most curious about is that this statement said the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes, which – and the military has said that it was called in because the Afghans asked for it. But MSF says that they had been given the coordinates much in the same way the IDF had been given the coordinates of the school in Rafah.
So the question is – and I realize this is under investigation. But the question is if – the question is: If the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes on a humanitarian facility for which the coordinates had been given, that it seems to have changed.
Toner: It’s just – look, Matt. I think it’s safe to say that this attack, this bombing, was not intentional. I can’t get into what may or may not have happened on the ground, whether the coordinates were known, whether they were acknowledged. It’s just too much speculation at this point.
Toner: So you’ll hopefully give me a pass if we wait for the investigation to run its course.
Lee: Okay. That’s – and that’s fine. I understand it. But in the case of this – the Rafah situation, you called for a full and prompt investigation of this incident, as well as others like it.
Lee: But that statement began by saying that the U.S. is appalled by the disgraceful shelling. That’s before an investigation even happened. So can you say now, knowing what you did, that you – that this shelling of this hospital was disgraceful and appalling?
Toner: Again, I would only just reiterate our sincere condolences to the victims of this attack and just again underscore the fact that we’re going to investigate this thoroughly. And as I said, once those investigations are complete, we’re going to take steps to – either to hold any responsible parties accountable or to take measures that avoid any kind of accident like this in the future.