Washington (AFP) - Amid the escalating death toll in Gaza, US officials finally sharpened their tone Wednesday condemning an attack on a UN school as patience with "crazy" Israeli criticism of would-be-peacemaker John Kerry snapped.
"Obviously nothing justifies the killing of innocent civilians seeking shelter in a UN facility," deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged, in some of the toughest US comments since the start of the 23-day fighting in the Gaza Strip.
But while both the White House and the State Department condemned the shelling of a UN-run school in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza in which 16 Palestinians were killed, neither would assign blame to staunch US ally, Israel.
"Innocent Palestinians seeking refuge in these schools should not have shells dropped on them, should not come under attack," Harf insisted, but despite heated exchanges with reporters she stressed "we don't know for certain who shelled this school, we need to get all the facts."
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan also condemned "those responsible for hiding weapons in United Nations facilities in Gaza" and warned of rising fears that thousands of Palestinians who have been told by Israel to leave their homes increasingly had nowhere to go in the blockaded narrow coastal strip.
Relations between Israel and its staunch ally the United States have plunged in recent days after Kerry returned from a mission to the Middle East to try to broker a ceasefire between the Israelis and Hamas militants.
Anonymous Israeli officials have hit out at Kerry's truce proposal calling it "a strategic terrorist attack" and criticizing it for being a "Hamas wish-list" including moves to lift a long-standing Israeli blockade of Gaza while failing to address Israel's security concerns, such as Hamas rocket fire and a network of underground tunnels.
And on Tuesday a fabricated transcript of a call between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went viral on social media.
Kerry is "a friend of Israel, but with friends like these, sometimes it's better to negotiate with your enemies," said Nahum Barnea, writing in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot.
The secretary of state has also been described as a "bull in a china shop," and an "amateur who thinks he can solve the world's problems with his presence alone."
- Out to hurt ties? -
But Harf hit out at the torrent of abuse from "respected voices in Israel talking about the secretary of state, claiming that he supports Hamas, which is offensive and absurd."
"The level of support this administration has given Israel has been, quite frankly, unprecedented in our history... even when we stood alone," she added.
And she rubbished the fake transcript as "complete crap," adding "there's clearly people, I don't know who and I don't want to guess ... who are putting out false and defamatory and absurd information."
"I don't know what else you can assume about the intentions except that they’re designed to hurt our relationship," she added.
Washington, which has provided billions in military aid to Israel including funding the Iron Dome shield protecting the country from Hamas rockets, was "very committed" to the security of the Jewish state, which is "why these vicious attacks on the secretary are just crazy," she added.
More than 100 people died in Israeli strikes across Gaza Wednesday, medics said, including 17 at a crowded marketplace, sending the Palestinian toll from the 23 days of fighting above 1,350.
On the Israeli side, the conflict has cost the lives of 56 Israeli soldiers, and two civilians.
Israel insists it is taking extraordinary care not to hit civilians, and gives them warnings to leave areas it plans to attack. As many as 200,000 Palestinians have sought refugee in UN-run schools and shelters.
"Tens of thousands of Palestinians could soon be stranded in the streets of Gaza without food, without water, without shelter if attacks on these areas continue," Harf warned.
"We want the Israelis to take more steps to protect civilians."