Secretary of State John Kerry made some glaring errors and omissions while speaking to journalists Tuesday about efforts to reduce tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians, including raising two discredited reports about alleged violence against Palestinians and misstating the number of Israelis killed in a Palestinian terrorist attack on a synagogue, three of whom were also U.S. citizens.
Kerry was in London holding talks over Palestinian Authority threats to push for a U.N. Security Council resolution to force a full Israeli pullout from the West Bank and east Jerusalem within two years.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks during a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in London, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. Kerry discussed a U.N. resolution that would set a two-year timetable for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Kerry’s opening remarks to journalists described the unrest in the region in recent weeks, including stabbing and acid attacks on Israelis, the death of a Palestinian official and the burning of a mosque.
From the transcript of Kerry’s remarks (emphasis added):
The ongoing unrest of the last weeks has brought new tensions to all sides. And earlier this month, two Israelis were stabbed as they shopped for groceries in the West Bank. Two more were axed to death while praying. And we were all devastated and shocked by the acid attack against an Israeli family last week. Palestinians have mourned the death of a Palestinian official, Ziad Abu Ein, and they have suffered indefensible price tag attacks, so-called price tag attacks, including the recent burning of a mosque near Ramallah.
Here is an examination of Kerry’s remarks:
• The number of Israelis killed in synagogue attack.
Kerry said, “Two more were axed to death while praying.”
It was four Israelis, not two, who were axed to death by Palestinian terrorists in November while praying at a Jerusalem synagogue – three of them also held U.S. citizenship. A fifth victim — an Israeli police officer — later succumbed to his wounds sustained while trying to fight the perpetrators.
• Disputed report on the death of a Palestinian minister.
Kerry said, “Palestinians have mourned the death of a Palestinian official, Ziad Abu Ein.”
While Kerry did not echo Palestinian accusations that Israeli forces killed the Palestinian Authority minister in a Dec. 10 confrontation, he included the incident in his list presenting Israeli and Palestinian grievances.
However, a joint Israeli-Palestinian autopsy reported widely in the Israeli media concluded that Abu Ein’s death was caused by a stress-induced heart attack and that he had a history of heart disease.
Palestinian eyewitness accounts immediately following the incident varied widely, with some who said Israeli troops fired tear gas on a crowd of protesters which Abu Ein inhaled, while another said he was hit by a gas canister. Others described him as getting hit in the chest with a rifle butt and another witness said a soldier hit him with his helmet.
Abu Ein, 55, died shortly after the protesters’ confrontation with IDF soldiers.
The Jerusalem Post quoted an Israeli health ministry statement which said his death was caused by “blockage of the main coronary arteries that delivery [sic] oxygenated blood to the heart muscle caused by hemorrhaging under the plaque layer. The change in the layer (bleeding) can be caused by stress.”
Even after the reports on the autopsy, the Palestinian Authority stuck by its accusation blaming Israel for the “murder” of Abu Ein.
Though he pointed to how that Palestinians “mourned the death” of the official, Kerry did not note that Abu Ein was extradited from the U.S. to Israel three decades ago following his role in a 1979 terrorist attack on a Jewish holiday celebration in Tiberias which killed two Israeli teens, Boaz Lahav and David Lankri.
• The “burning” of a mosque.
Kerry referred in his remarks to “the recent burning of a mosque near Ramallah.”
He was likely referring to a Nov. 12 fire at a mosque in Mughayer near Ramallah, which Palestinians blamed on Jewish settlers — a claim widely reported as a suspected arson attack, despite a lack of evidence. On Monday, the Israeli fire department concluded it was most likely the result of an electrical malfunction, not arson.
Israeli Fire Services spokesman Asaf Abras was quoted by the Associated Press saying that investigators believe the fire was an accident.
Despite Palestinian eyewitness reports that they saw anti-Muslim graffiti at the mosque, investigators found no evidence of graffiti.
Still, the Palestinian mayor of Mughayer, Faraj al-Naasan, stuck by the accusation of arson, saying earlier this week that residents had a "strong reason" to believe settlers were behind it because he said they have carried out violence in the past.
• Israelis and Palestinians “desperately” want peace.
Examining the reliability of another assertion Kerry made twice may be more a matter of opinion than a glaring error, but is worth noting as it reflects the Obama administration’s efforts at maintaining an even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Earlier in his remarks, Kerry described his concern about “the risk of escalation.”
“And that is why it is imperative to lower the temperature, end the tension, so that we have an opportunity to find a path that Israelis and Palestinians both want so desperately, which is a path that leads out of the current predicament and actually provides people with an opportunity to touch, to feel, to see and know that there really is a prospect for genuine peace,” he said (emphasis added).
At the end of his statement he said, “The United States recognizes the deeply felt aspiration for peace shared by the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians, and we will continue to work with our friends and partners to find a path to the goal that we all share for a more peaceful and stable region” (emphasis added).
Despite Kerry’s efforts at presenting “the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians” aspiring to peace, a widely reported Palestinian public opinion poll published last week (noted by the Associated Press and run in the Washington Post) raises questions about that assertion.
The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research polled Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and found that 80 percent of those surveyed supported recent stabbing and hit-and-run attacks on Israelis.
It also found that Hamas – which is dedicated to replacing the state of Israel with an Islamist state - would win presidential elections if the Palestinians were to go to the polls at this time.
Note that the statements examined above were made during Kerry’s opening remarks, not in answer to reporter questions.
Here is video the State Department posted of Kerry's remarks: