- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Israel unleashed its heaviest bombardment in its three-week-old campaign against Hamas in Gaza on Tuesday as the Obama administration battled the growing perception among Israelis that Secretary of State John F. Kerry is a hapless bumbler in search of a cosmetic truce.

Diplomatic efforts remained stalled despite a death toll that Palestinian officials said rose above 1,200 on Tuesday. The shadowy leader of the Hamas military wing said his group will not cease fire until an economic embargo is ended and other demands are met.

After his latest round of mediation failed to achieve a cease-fire, Mr. Kerry has been portrayed in the Israeli media as a blunderer who unwittingly represented the interests of Hamas, a terrorist organization that declares the death of all Jews everywhere to be a religious duty.

“U.S. Secretary of State of State John Kerry ruined everything,” columnist Ari Shavit wrote in Haaretz, Israel’s most influential liberal newspaper. “Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack.’”

Mr. Kerry said Tuesday he is not concerned about personal attacks.

“I’ve taken hits before in politics. I’m not worried about that,” he told reporters. “This is not about me. This is about Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself.”

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He said he is in frequent contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We are working very carefully and, I think, thoughtfully with our Israeli friends in order to be able to find a way to reduce the civilian loss of life, to prevent this from spiraling downwards,” Mr. Kerry said.

Some of the attacks on Mr. Kerry in the Israeli press have been attributed to unnamed Cabinet ministers, who described a U.S. cease-fire draft proposal as a “prize to terror.” They complained that Mr. Kerry and the Obama administration were being unduly influenced by Turkey and Qatar, whom Israelis view as being on the side of Hamas.

Mr. Kerry’s eroded credibility is raising questions about his effectiveness at mediating in the Middle East.

Asked whether Mr. Kerry has lost some credibility in Israel, Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign policy and defense studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, replied, “Some? He has none.”

These and similar criticisms have prompted Obama administration officials to rush to Mr. Kerry’s defense.

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White House press secretary Josh Earnest, asked whether the criticism in Israel has hampered Mr. Kerry’s ability to broker a cease-fire, said, “We do not think so.”

“It is in the interest of the Israeli people for the harsh words that we’ve seen directed at the secretary [to] not affect his ability to continue to be a strong advocate for them,” Mr. Earnest said. “Secretary Kerry has worked doggedly over the last year or so since he took office … pressing both sides … to the negotiating table in search of a broader peace agreement. He is going to continue to work very hard on this.”

Mr. Earnest called Mr. Kerry “an important element of resolving the situation, because he is somebody who is well versed in all these issues.”

“He is somebody who has the clear backing of the president of the United States,” he said. “He is somebody that has very good relationships with both Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders. This is credibility that he’s built up through his years of service to this administration in pursuit of that goal.”

But the fighting in Gaza raged on Tuesday evening. Residents of the sprawling Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza reported intense tank shelling.

Ten members of an extended family were killed and 50 other people wounded in the area, Palestinian health officials said. Two brothers driving in a car with markings of a U.N. aid agency were killed by shrapnel, an area resident said.

“It was like an earthquake,” Moussa al-Mabhouh, a volunteer for Gaza’s Civil Defense, said of the scene. “Roofs collapsed, walls cracked, and wounded people [were] everywhere.”

The heavy strikes — which came a day after Mr. Netanyahu warned of a “prolonged” campaign against Hamas — were a new blow to international efforts to reach a sustainable truce in the fighting.

Israel has vowed to stop the Hamas rocket and mortar fire that has reached increasingly deeper into its territory and to destroy a sophisticated network of tunnels that have been used by the militants to infiltrate the Jewish state. For its part, Hamas has so far rejected cease-fire efforts unless a punishing blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt is lifted and Hamas prisoners are released.

The rare remarks by the Hamas military wing’s leader, Mohammed Deif, were broadcast late Tuesday on Al-Aqsa TV, the satellite station of Hamas.

“There is not going to be a cease-fire as long as the demands of our people are not fulfilled,” he said.

Israel has reported 53 soldiers and three civilians killed.

Already, the intensity and the scope of the current Gaza operation is on par with an invasion five years ago, which ended with Israel unilaterally withdrawing after hitting Hamas hard.

On Tuesday, Israeli warplanes carried out dozens of attacks, leveling the home of the top Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, and damaging the offices of the movement’s Al-Aqsa satellite TV station, a central mosque in Gaza City and government offices.

Mr. Haniyeh’s house, in a narrow alley of the Shati refugee camp, was reduced to rubble, but no one was hurt. Residents placed a large framed portrait of Haniyeh atop the wreckage and draped it with green Hamas flags and Palestinian national banners.

Israel has targeted several homes of Hamas leaders, but none has been killed — presumably because they have kept a low profile. Mr. Haniyeh said in a statement Tuesday that “destroying stones will not break our determination.”

Also Tuesday, a cache of rockets was found hidden inside a U.N. school for Palestinian refugees, the third such find in the past few weeks.

“We condemn the group or groups who endangered civilians by placing these munitions in our school,” said Chris Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians. “This is yet another flagrant violation of the neutrality of our premises.”

Much international criticism of Israel has focused on charges that it is killing Palestinian civilians. Israel consistently rebuts such charges by saying Hamas deliberately mixes military assets and civilian facilities to try to force the Israelis into a choice of not hitting legitimate targets or, if they do, of risking civilian deaths — the TV images of which will further delegitimize the Jewish state in many people’s eyes.

The scene at the Gaza power plant after two tank shells hit one of three fuel tanks was daunting, and thick black smoke rose into the sky for hours. The station’s shutdown further disrupted the supply of electricity and water to the 1.7 million people packed into the narrow Palestinian coastal territory.

“We need at least one year to repair the power plant, the turbines, the fuel tanks and the control room,” said Fathi Sheik Khalil of the Gaza Energy Authority. “Everything was burned.”

He said crew members who had been trapped by the fire for several hours were evacuated.

Even before the shutdown, Gaza residents only had electricity for about three hours a day because fighting had damaged power lines. Most of the power lines from Israel that provided electricity for payment were previously damaged in the fighting.

This means most of Gaza will now be without power, which also will affect water supplies, because electricity is needed to operate water pumps.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, did not comment on the explosion at the plant but told The Associated Press that Israel’s latest strikes signal “a gradual increase in the pressure” on Hamas.

Israel is “determined to strike this organization and relieve us of this threat,” Lt. Col. Lerner said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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