The Cable

Gaza Fighting Turns Uglier as Cease-Fire Proves Elusive

The Israeli cabinet unanimously rejected a U.S.-backed plan for a weeklong halt in fighting between Israel and Hamas, dealing a blow to the Obama administration's effort to end the conflict in Gaza and to revive a broader push for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The failure to implement a cease-fire before a self-imposed deadline this weekend comes as the conflict threatens to take a new, uglier turn. Thousands of Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli forces in the West Bank following a strike on a U.N. school in Gaza that left 16 dead and hundreds wounded. With the fighting now in its third week, more than 800 people -- mostly civilians -- have died in Gaza. Fighting has also claimed the lives of 35 Israelis, the bulk of whom were soldiers.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats were upbeat about the talks right up until the vote. Addressing reporters alongside U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Kerry said he could not announce a full-blown cease-fire agreement before departing Cairo for meetings in Paris on Saturday because Israelis and Palestinians could not agree on the "terminology" of a cease-fire. Shoukry said the warring parties need more time to reach an understanding.

Israeli officials were reportedly adamant that any agreement allow Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops to continue destroying Hamas tunnels in Gaza. These tunnels -- which Hamas fighters use to infiltrate Israel and carry out operations -- have become a focus of IDF operations during the conflict that began July 8. Israeli forces were reportedly surprised by the networks' full extent, and destroying them is now a key IDF objective.

Still, Kerry says he will press on in his urging to end the fighting. A U.S. official told Reuters that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to a 12-hour "humanitarian cease-fire" to commence Saturday morning as a "down payment."

"None of us here are stopping," Kerry said. "We have a framework that will work."

Kerry is promoting a two-step diplomatic initiative that would begin with a seven-day truce. Once the fighting stops, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators would join other key regional and international powers in Cairo for broader talks about the Gaza Strip's economic, political, and security future.

Though Israeli media reported that the American proposal was unanimously rejected by the Israeli cabinet, Kerry downplayed the setback's magnitude, insisting that the Israeli government's discussion is focused around concepts and that no final proposal was submitted.
"Gaps have been significantly narrowed," Kerry said. "It can be achieved if we work through some of the issues that are important for the parties."

Hamas's response to Kerry's cease-fire outline is unclear. It rejected an earlier Egyptian proposal, which Israel had accepted, saying it wasn't consulted and that the plan didn't address its demands to lift the blockade on Gaza and release more prisoners from Israeli jails. In an interview Thursday with the BBC, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said Hamas would silence its weapons when the blockade is lifted. "We want a cease-fire as soon as possible that's parallel with the lifting of the siege on Gaza. That is the demand of the Gazan people," he said.

On Thursday, a strike targeting a U.N. school in Gaza providing shelter to Palestinians fleeing the violence left 16 people dead and more than 100 wounded, including women and children. Even though there's no definitive proof which side is responsible for the incident, the West Bank erupted in protest overnight.

Thousands of West Bank protesters clashed with Israeli security forces Friday. At least five Palestinian protesters were killed. Meanwhile, Israel continued its operations in Gaza and the IDF said that one of its soldiers, Staff Sgt. Guy Levy, 21, was killed in Gaza by Palestinian "terrorists" operating near a school administered by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Palestine (UNRWA). More than 140,000 Palestinians are sheltering from the fighting in UNRWA facilities.

"At noon today, terrorists fired mortars & anti-tank missiles from near an UNRWA school in Gaza, killing an IDF soldier," according to a tweet from the IDF spokesman. "Our initial reports from the field indicate that terrorists also opened fire from within the UNRWA school."

Shortly after the announcement that the Israeli government had rejected a cease-fire proposal, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told his troops "to be prepared for the possibility IDF will be ordered to expand Gaza ground operation very soon."

ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Freshman Congressman Mistakes Senior Government Officials for Foreigners

In an intensely awkward congressional hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday, freshman Rep. Curt Clawson misidentified two senior U.S. government officials as representatives of the Indian government.

The two officials, Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar, are Americans who hold senior positions at the State Department and Commerce Department, respectively. Although both Biswal and Kumar were introduced as U.S. officials by the chairman of the Asia and Pacific subcommittee, Clawson repeatedly asked them questions about "your country" and "your government," in reference to the state of India.

"I'm familiar with your country; I love your country," the Florida Republican said. "Anything I can do to make the relationship with India better, I'm willing and enthusiastic about doing so."

Apparently confused by their Indian surnames and skin color, Clawson also asked if "their" government could loosen restrictions on U.S. capital investments in India.

"Just as your capital is welcome here to produce good-paying jobs in the U.S., I'd like our capital to be welcome there," he said. "I ask cooperation and commitment and priority from your government in so doing. Can I have that?"

The question prompted a lengthy pause and looks of confusion from State Department and congressional staff attending the hearing.

"I think your question is to the Indian government," Biswal said. "We certainly share your sentiment, and we certainly will advocate that on behalf of the U.S."

It's extremely uncommon for foreign officials to testify before Congress under oath. Even so, it's unclear if at any point Clawson realized his mistake, despite the existence of a witness list distributed to the various members detailing Biswal and Kumar's positions. Clawson's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

During the hearing, he repeatedly touted his deep knowledge of the Indian subcontinent and his favorite Bollywood movies. None of his fellow colleagues publicly called him out on the oversight -- perhaps going easy on him because he's the new guy.

The Tea Party-backed lawmaker won a special election last month to fill the seat of Trey Radel, who resigned after being convicted for cocaine possession. Clawson pitched himself as an outsider with private sector experience and touted his role as chief executive of an aluminum wheel company.

Thursday was Clawson's first day sitting on the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. He was named to the full committee July 9. Subcommittee Chairman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) promoted Clawson's deep international business acumen and knowledge of four languages in welcoming him. "Our newest member of this committee, Curt Clawson ... speaks four languages and all kinds of other great stuff," Chabot boasted.

The gaffe comes as members of Congress seek to strengthen U.S. ties to the world's largest democracy following the election of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this spring. Lawmakers are circulating letters to have Modi address a joint session of Congress.

Following Clawson's opening statement, Rep. Eliot Engel, the full panel's ranking Democrat, appeared eager to point out that Biswal and Kumar work for the United States. "Thank you both for your service to our country, it's very much appreciated," New York's Engel said.

Update: While Clawson's office did not respond to a request for comment, the congressman apologized in a statement to USA Today later on Friday. "I made a mistake in speaking before being fully briefed and I apologize. I'm a quick study, but in this case I shot an air ball," he said.

Video edited by Tony Papousek