One of the low points of last summer’s war in Gaza was Israel’s strike outside a United Nations school in the city of Rafah on Aug. 3, 2014. Meant to hit a military target, according to the Israel Defense Forces, the strike killed at least 10 and injured dozens. It was the latest in a string of Israeli bombs to hit U.N. facilities.
The United Nations issued a swift condemnation, calling it a “moral outrage and criminal act.” So did the United States, condemning the shelling and admonishing Israel to adhere to higher standards of warfare.
“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which 10 more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “We once again stress that Israel do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.”
Now, the United States finds itself in Israel’s place, fending off criticism after its forces bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan on Oct. 3, killing 22. A harsh U.N. condemnation recalled its criticism of Israel.
“This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said in an Oct. 3 statement. “International and Afghan military planners have an obligation to respect and protect civilians at all times, and medical facilities and personnel are the object of a special protection.”
The State Department, meanwhile, has not rushed to criticize its own country the way it did Israel. When the Associated Press’ Matt Lee pressed State Department spokesman Mark Toner on the similarities between the Rafah strike and last week’s on the Afghan hospital in Kunduz, Toner stressed that any civilian casualties were unfortunate and unintentional, and that an investigation was underway.
“I think it’s safe to say that this attack, this bombing, was not intentional,” Toner said in response to Lee at an Oct. 5 press conference. “I can’t get into what may or may not have happened … So you’ll hopefully give me a pass if we wait for the investigation to run its course.”
Toner would not call the hospital strike “appalling” or “disgraceful.”
It’s no shock that the U.S. would go easier on itself than on another country. But the apparent inconsistency in State Department statements speaks to what some call an unparalleled level of scrutiny of Israel. Israel, some critics say, receives far more of the world’s attention and ire than do other conflict zones where the fighting is as bad or worse.
In an article published near the midpoint of the Gaza war, Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg noted that the New York Times had devoted far more recent coverage to Israel and Gaza than to Syria — even though Syria’s death toll was far larger. Goldberg attributed the disparity to the access journalists had to the Gaza conflict, as well as to what he called disproportionate interest in Israel and Jews.
“As far as I can tell, the Times, as of [July 23, 2014], has not addressed this most recent round of Syria carnage in an even semi-comprehensive way,” he wrote. “It goes without saying that continuing violence in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Yemen, and so on, has not received much attention from the Times in recent days.”
A couple of weeks later, the Economist quantified that interest. In two graphs charting Google searches and death tolls for various conflicts, the magazine showed that Israel was Googled about 10 times more than Syria in early July, although the Gaza death toll was a fraction of Syria’s.
But if the U.S. military is taking its cues from the IDF in explaining its actions, Israel’s Foreign Ministry is not playing the State Department’s role. Asked whether it had any reaction to the U.S. strike, a spokesman said the Israeli ministry had no comment.