August 3, 2014 12:17:50 AM
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Friday condemned "outrageous" violations of an internationally brokered Gaza cease-fire by Palestinian militants and called the apparent abduction of an Israeli soldier a "barbaric" action.
The strong reaction from Washington came as Israeli officials questioned the effort to forge the truce, accusing the U.S. and the United Nations of being naive in assuming the radical Hamas movement would adhere with its terms. The officials also blamed the Gulf state of Qatar for not forcing the militants to comply.
With the cease-fire in tatters fewer than two hours after it took effect with the attack that killed two Israeli troops and left a third missing, President Barack Obama demanded that those responsible release the soldier immediately.
Obama and other U.S. officials did not directly blame Hamas for the abduction. But they made clear they hold Hamas responsible for, or having influence over, the actions of all factions in the Gaza Strip. The language was a distinct change from Thursday when Washington was focused on the deaths of Palestinian civilians.
"If they are serious about trying to resolve this situation, that soldier needs to be unconditionally released as soon as possible," Obama told reporters.
He added that it would be difficult to revive the cease-fire without his release.
"It's going to be very hard to put a cease-fire back together again if Israelis and the international community can't feel confident that Hamas can follow through on a cease-fire commitment," he said. His comment reflected uncertainty in the U.S. and elsewhere that Hamas was actually responsible for the incident or if some other militant group was to blame.
At the same time, Obama called the situation in Gaza "heartbreaking" and repeated calls for Israel to do more to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties. "Innocent civilians caught in the crossfire have to weigh on our conscience, and we have to do more," he said.
Despite the collapse of the truce, Obama credited Secretary of State John Kerry for his work with the United Nations to forge one. He lamented criticism and "nitpicking" of Kerry's attempts and said the effort would continue despite the latest setback.
Kerry negotiated the truce with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon in a marathon session of phone calls over several days while he was in India on an official visit. Kerry had spent much of the past two weeks in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and France trying to mediate a cease-fire with Qatar and Turkey playing a major role because of their close ties with Hamas.
Those efforts failed with Israel saying it could not trust Hamas and some Israelis and American pro-Israel groups complaining that the U.S. was treating the group -- a foreign terrorist organization as designated by the State Department -- as a friend.
Late Thursday, however, Israel accepted Kerry and Ban's latest proposal, despite its reservations. Once the truce was violated, though, Israeli officials hit out at not only Hamas, but the United States and Qatar for its failure.
In a phone call with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vented his anger, according to people familiar with the call.
Netanyahu told Shapiro the Obama administration was "not to ever second-guess me again" and that Washington should trust his judgment on how to deal with Hamas, according to people familiar with the conversation. Netanyahu added that he now "expected" the U.S. and other countries to fully support Israel's offensive in Gaza, according to those familiar with the call. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.
They said Netanyahu made similar points to Kerry, who himself denounced the attack as "outrageous," saying it was an affront to assurances to respect the cease-fire given to the United States and United Nations, which brokered the truce.