WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama planned to discuss the plight of Gaza with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu during their meeting on Wednesday in the Oval Office, the White House said on Tuesday night, after 50 days of fighting this summer led his administration to condemn Israel’s use of force in the coastal Palestinian strip as disproportionate.
After a third United Nations facility was shelled during the Israeli mission against Hamas, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, Obama administration officials harshly condemned Israel’s shelling practices: “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians,” the State Department said at the time.
But the White House now faces a challenge to its own standards governing air strikes in populated areas of active conflict. Already facing reports of high civilian deaths tolls early in its campaign against Islamic State, Caitlin Hayden from the National Security Council publicly lowered the administration’s standards on Tuesday, expecting collateral damage to mount in its fight against Islamic State in urban Syria.
The “near certainty” required for counterterrorism strikes elsewhere, Hayden told The Jerusalem Post
, only applies “when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time.”
“That description – outside areas of active hostilities – simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now,” Hayden said.
That said, she continued, “even as we confront an enemy that has brutalized the civilian population and has killed thousands of innocents, we are committed to being precise and discriminating in our use of lethal force, to complying with all applicable law, and to taking extreme care to minimize the risk of civilian casualties in all of our actions.”
Last week, mere days into its air campaign on the terrorist network rooted in Syria, Pentagon officials began expressing concerns that Islamic State fighters might use the population as a human shield to protect themselves from US-led air strikes.
The tactic has been used by Saddam Hussein for shelter from Western forces during the Gulf War and, most recently, by Hamas during Israel’s campaign in Gaza.
Hours after strikes first began on the city of Raqqa last Monday night, where the group holds court among a population of 220,000 civilians, the Pentagon said that Islamic State had already begun “adapting” to its air campaign in Iraq by dispersing and hiding in civilian areas.
“It obviously is something that we prefer to do when collateral damage, or concerns about precision in a closed environment, in an urban environment... is in play,” Lt.-Gen.
William Mayville Jr. said last Tuesday from the Pentagon. “There’s obviously a desire to put something on the ground.”
Islamic State is “an adaptive and learning” force, Mayville continued.
“We have seen evidence that they’re already doing that.”
The use of human shields in Gaza by Hamas was acknowledged and condemned in July by the State Department, which called the tactic “deplorable.” The imprecise nature of air strikes, and the prevalence of that stratagem, led in part to the ground invasion of Gaza by the IDF.
Asked by the Post whether the situations were comparable, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the two counterterrorism operations were “wholly different.”
“I don’t want to compare the two in any way,” Harf said. “We hold ourself to a very high standard. We’ve asked the Israelis to do the same thing, and we’ve spoken up when we don’t think that they have.”
The US is prepared to stake out, or even actively disperse civilian populations in order to minimize civilian casualties, while also avoiding the use of a ground force, Harf said.
“If that means waiting until there are fewer civilians in a specific area to take some sort of counterterrorism operation, we’ve done that before,” Harf continued. “The president’s been clear that when we undertake counterterrorism operations, we take civilian casualties very seriously, go to every length we can to prevent them, even if – and especially if – these terrorists are operating in densely-populated areas.”
Unlike in Gaza, civilians in eastern Syria are not geographically bound from seeking refuge elsewhere. More than 2.5 million Syrians have fled across their country’s borders, and millions more are internally displaced.
During Operation Protective Edge, IDF officials advised Netanyahu and his cabinet that the destruction of Hamas would require the full-scale invasion of Gaza.
Obama has called for the destruction of Islamic State, estimated to be worth billions of dollars and with 30,000 men in its ranks. The self-declared capital of the group’s “caliphate” is Raqqa, where air forces from the US, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates opened their campaign against its assets on Monday night.
More than 2,100 people were killed in Gaza this summer, of whom between 50 percent and 69 percent were civilians, depending on the source of the figures.
Harf rejected the notion that civilian populations would serve as safe havens, that air power would be insufficient and that the destruction of the group was impossible without facing the challenges Israel faced over 50 bloody days of summer.
“It’s not an either-or proposition here,” she said, adding: “We will stay with this fight no matter how long it takes.”