On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner stumbled when Associated Press journalist Matt Lee asked him about the apparent double standard to which the US holds Israel when it comes to civilian deaths during military action, following a US strike on a Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Afghanistan which killed 22.
The strike in the Afghan city of Kunduz, for which the US accepted blame on Tuesday, was apparently accidental, occurring as government forces fought to take control of the city from the Taliban.
The incident brought up parallels to a similar strike which occurred during last year’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, in which the IDF bombed a UNRWA school in the Gazan city of Rafah after discovering that militants had stored artillery there.
The incident sparked a sharp condemnation from the US, which released a strongly worded statement vilifying the IDF’s actions.
However, when Lee asked if the US would condemn the attack on the hospital as strongly as they had the Israeli action, spokesman Matt Toner was unable to answer, blustering and stammering for several minutes before ultimately avoiding the question.
Lee opened his question by reading out the US’s original statement on the Rafah attack, which began, “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, had 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.”
Mark Toner Stumbles on Israel Question
Lee then drew attention to one particular line of the statement, saying, “The sentence that’s key here, and this is what I want to ask about: ‘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.”
He posed his question, asking, “Is it 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 attempted to answer the question in general terms, saying, “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.”
He then became less coherent as he visibly struggled to find an answer, continuing, “But generally, uh, you know, uh, these are difficult situations . . . it was an active combat zone . . . Uh, you know, uh, I mean of course we, uh, you know, 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 drew attention to the specific parallels between the two bombings, pointing out that the US army had also had the coordinates of the hospital. “If the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes on a humanitarian facility for which the coordinates had been given, then it seems to have changed,” he observed.
Toner became even more flustered, saying, “It’s just, uh, look that, um, I think it’s safe to say that, uh, you know, this attack, this bombing, uh, 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.” He asked for a “pass” on the question until the investigations had run their course.
Lee then pointed out that the US had condemned the Israeli action before an investigation had been done. He brought the discussion home, asking Toner flat-out to condemn the US attack as it had the Israeli attack, saying, “So can you say now that this shelling of this hospital was disgraceful and appalling?”
Toner gave his weakest response yet, completely failing to address the question. “Um, again, I-I, I would only just reiterate, uh, our, uh, our, uh, sincere condolences to the victims of this, uh, of this attack, and again, just underscore the fact that we’re going to investigate this thoroughly, uh, and, uh, as I said, uh, once those investigations are complete we’ll take steps to hold any responsible parties accountable.”