The Cable

U.N. Chief: Israel Responsible for 'Reprehensible' School Attack

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon directly accused Israel of shelling a U.N.-protected shelter housing more than 3,000 Palestinians in Gaza as part of what he said was an "outrageous" and "unjustifiable" strike that left at least 16 civilians dead and lent urgency to the need for an "immediate, unconditional cease-fire."

In a scorching rebuke from the normally mild-mannered diplomat, Ban charged that Israel's action constituted a "reprehensible" assault on civilians and demanded that those responsible for the strike be held accountable. The shelling of the Jabalia Elementary Girls School marked the fifth time since the conflict began on July 8 that a U.N.-protected shelter has been hit with incoming fire, but the incident is the first time that Ban has directly blamed Israel. That leaves open the possibility that some of the other facilities were hit by Hamas rockets. Israeli officials have said the militant group stores weapons in U.N. facilities and uses them to fire rockets into the Jewish state.

"This morning, yet another United Nations school sheltering thousands of Palestinian families suffered a reprehensible attack. All available evidence points to Israeli artillery as the cause," Ban said during a stop-off in Costa Rica. "Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children."

The Israel Defense Forces say that they did not intentionally target the U.N. facility. Instead, a spokesman for the Israeli military told the New York Times that troops had shot back after being fired upon from the "vicinity" of the school. The Palestinian militant group Hamas -- which has fired more than 2,600 rockets against Israel and mounted raids inside Israel through a vast network of underground tunnels -- has stored rockets inside abandoned U.N. shelters and routinely mounts military strikes against Israelis from densely populated neighborhoods in Gaza.

It's unclear whether Wednesday's strike against a U.N. facility would mark a turning point in the conflict. But it is likely to massively increase pressure on Barack Obama's administration to negotiate an end to the weeks-long fighting, which shows no signs of winding down.

White House spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said the administration is "extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in U.N.-designated shelters in Gaza." But Meehan also said armed Palestinians were "responsible for hiding weapons in United Nations facilities in Gaza."

"This violence underscores the need to achieve a cease-fire as soon as possible," she added.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also condemned the shelling of the U.N. school. Asked whether she was not prepared to blame Israel for the attack, she said: "That's correct. We have said that there needs to be a full investigation to see what happened here."

Ban said that the United Nations had provided Israeli military authorities with the precise location and coordinates of the shelter 17 times during the conflict, including a few hours before the attack. Ban's deputy secretary-general, Jan Eliasson, said that the United Nations found mortar fragments from Israeli shells at the scene of the strike that pointed to Israeli responsibility.

"They were aware of the coordinates and exact locations where these people are being sheltered," Ban said. "I condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms. It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice."

The remarks were uncharacteristically harsh for the U.N. chief, who has been working closely with Israel, the Palestinians, the United States, and other foreign leaders to hammer out a cease-fire plan that would guarantee Israel's security while relieving the plight of Gazan civilians, who have borne the brunt of suffering in the conflict.

Fighting has cost the lives of more than 1,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, while Israel has lost 60 people, including 57 soldiers. On Wednesday, three Israeli soldiers were killed in what Israeli officials described as an operation in a booby-trapped UNRWA health clinic.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) -- which is sheltering more than 200,000 Palestinians in some 85 locations -- has discovered rocket arsenals hidden in U.N.-administered schools. John Ging, a senior U.N. relief official, told reporters at U.N. headquarters Wednesday that the rockets were placed in schools abandoned by the United Nations during the conflict.

Late Wednesday, Jordan, the lone Arab country on the Security Council, called for an emergency session Thursday morning to hear briefings on Gaza from the U.N.'s top humanitarian relief experts. Amman has also been weighing whether to push for a vote on a Security Council resolution condemning Israel's military operation and calling on the U.N. to protect Palestinian civilians. The United States has previously opposed the adoption of such a resolution, arguing that it would be more productive to persuade the warring parties to negotiate a cease-fire.

As the fighting persisted, U.S., U.N., and European diplomats intensified efforts to revive the stalled peace process, focusing on four key elements: an immediate cease-fire, a plan for reopening Gaza's border crossings into Egypt and Israel, the establishment of humanitarian aid corridors to bring in goods, and a proposal for disarming armed Palestinian groups.

Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, is in the region pushing both parties to agree to the four measures. The cease-fire proposal that he's advocating is largely based on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1860, which sets the terms for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza following Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-2009 conflict between Israel and Hamas. That resolution called for the "unimpeded" distribution of humanitarian aid to Gazans.

Another idea under consideration by Israel and other key powers involves the adoption of a new measure inspired by Resolution 1701, which formally ended the 2006 war in southern Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shiite militia. The new resolution would call for extending the Palestinian Authority's administration over Gaza and disarming armed Palestinian fighters, including Hamas. The plan -- which was outlined by Haaretz's diplomatic reporter Barak Ravid -- would require some sort of international monitoring force to verify compliance with the terms. Ravid reported Wednesday that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push for such a resolution in the Security Council.

But one U.N.-based diplomat said that negotiators will have to address one uncomfortable reality. "What is in it for Hamas?" the diplomat said. Negotiators, the diplomat said, will have to include incentives, including the payment of salaries to Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip's government.

"We are keen to try to use this crisis to advance a plan that might lead to something more sustainable than going back to the status quo ante," said one senior Western diplomat. The hope, the diplomat said, is we "could get a humanitarian pause to stop the killing" and create some "political space for longer-term ideas."

Photo by Mohamed Abed/ AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

West Sanctions Moscow, With Caveats

The United States and the European Union unveiled new sets of economic sanctions against Russia and threatened to ratchet them up even further if Russian strongman Vladimir Putin continues to support separatists in Ukraine. Behind the tough talk, however, is a careful set of measures with so many loopholes that they are unlikely to hobble the Russian economy.

The coordinated moves by Washington and Brussels began Tuesday, when European leaders took their broadest swipe yet at key sectors of the Russian economy and announced measures designed to block Russian banks from using the continent's capital markets, curtail the export of oil industry equipment, and ban member countries from signing new defense contracts with Russia. But the EU left some loopholes large enough to send a couple of giant warships through, as the French government still plans to do. Also left largely untouched was Russia's all-powerful gas industry.

Hours later, President Barack Obama announced new sanctions designed to match the EU move, keeping Russian oil companies from buying Western firms' technology to extract its hard-to-reach deep-sea and shale oil reserves. It's unclear whether that prohibition will hit existing energy contracts.

The new European sanctions go further than ever before but still fall short of the type of "sectoral sanctions" that would block business with entire Russian industries. That reflects EU leaders' concerns that hitting Russia too hard would also hurt their own companies and industries. The arms embargo, for instance, doesn't apply to existing agreements. That means the $1.6 billion French deal to sell Mistral warships to Russia, which had come under fire from British officials last week, will be allowed to go forward, though France has said it will only deliver the first one while re-evaluating whether to also deliver the second.

That's not the only sacred cow left untouched. While the new coordinated measures target future oil production, they don't touch the natural gas business, a pillar of Russia's export economy and a lifeline for Europeans. Both the United States and Europe took steps to restrict trade in key oil industry equipment needed for extracting oil from deep waters, in the Arctic, and from shale -- all areas where Russia hopes to boost its oil output in years to come. The U.S. Commerce Department said it will limit the export of crucial oil technology to Russia, but it is not yet clear exactly what goods and services will be banned, how that will affect Russia's current oil production, or even how much U.S. and European firms will be hit by export bans on certain oil projects.

But in theory, the measures could put the pinch on Russian energy production in years to come: Russia needs to increase output by about 1.5 million barrels per day by the end of the decade to compensate for declining production at old fields. Tapping tight oil could be the key -- but that requires lots of oil-field services, such as drilling rigs, which the country does not have, despite efforts by state-owned Rosneft and others to bolster Russia's domestic oil-field services sector. Russia could also turn to other countries, such as China, for energy technology. Putin has already proven adept at finding other customers in the midst of the battle with Europe, such as a mammoth $400 billion natural gas deal with China that will diversify Russia's energy exports.

EU nations may also be able to buy certain military equipment from Russia to help maintain existing tanks and weapons bought from Moscow, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. That could keep the measures from taking too much of a bite out of the Russian defense industry.

The Obama administration, for its part, moved to shut three more Russian financial institutions -- VTB Bank, Bank of Moscow, and Russian Agricultural Bank -- out of U.S. capital markets. The move doesn't block Americans from dealing with the banks entirely, but expands an earlier list of banks that are prohibited from seeking medium- and long-term financing from U.S. investors. The targeted Russian banks now make up 30 percent of the Russian banking sector, by assets, according to an Obama administration official. The United States also added a navy shipbuilder, the government-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation, to its list of blacklisted defense companies, barring American companies and individuals from dealing with them.

Obama said the new U.S. measures would further weaken an already wobbly Russian economy. Russian economic growth was already down heading into 2014, but the combination of Moscow's foray into Ukraine and the threat of sanctions has driven economic forecasts down further. Economists say Russia could see $100-$150 billion in capital outflow this year, with growth close to zero.

The EU's turn toward targeting industries comes amid growing evidence that Putin is escalating his support for pro-Russian separatists inside Ukraine. U.S. officials believe that the rebels used a Russian-provided anti-aircraft missile to down a civilian airplane, killing all of the nearly 300 passengers on board. American officials say that Putin has moved 15,000 troops to its border with Ukraine in recent weeks and fired into the country from positions inside Russia.

"The package of new restrictive measures agreed today by the European Union constitutes a powerful signal to the leaders of the Russian Federation: destabilizing Ukraine, or any other eastern European neighboring state, will bring heavy costs to its economy," Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, said in a statement. The details of the EU measures are expected to be published Thursday, which is when they will go into effect.

Still, the big unknown in the West's sanctions equation is how far the United States and its allies would need to go to force Putin, whose popularity has soared since the Ukrainian crisis began, to change course. The White House recognized in a briefing Monday that Putin had been "doubling down" and providing more weaponry and support to the pro-Russian separatists, a point Obama emphasized when he announced the new sanctions.

"Today, Russia is once again isolating itself from the international community, setting back decades of genuine progress," President Obama said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Russian lawmakers were already considering countermeasures, including legislation that could bar firms from certain countries from operating in Russia, according to reports by state-owned media. The ban would target big transnational firms like Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and KPMG, according to a report by the Financial Times.

Despite the tough talk from Washington and Brussels, Obama took pains to avoid saying anything that could ratchet up tensions with Putin even further.

"No, it's not a new cold war," the president said in response to a shouted question. "What it is, is a very specific issue related to Russia's unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path."