WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry strongly criticized Palestinian leaders Sunday for rejecting a cease-fire plan, but he also appeared — in comments captured by a live microphone — to express exasperation with the high cost in civilian lives as Israel pressed its ground attack on Gaza.
Kerry, who was expected to leave Monday for the region, was making a sweep of the five major network television programs when, between interviews, he spoke by cellphone to an unidentified aide.
Chris Wallace, the interviewer for “Fox News Sunday,” confronted Kerry with a tape of those remarks during his appearance on that program.
In it, Kerry is heard to say: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation. We’ve got to get over there. Thank you, Jon. I think, Jon, we ought to go tonight. I think it’s crazy to be sitting around.”
The State Department later identified the aide as Jonathan Finer, Kerry’s deputy chief of staff, who accompanies him on his trips.
The comments were without context, but Wallace’s questioning and Kerry’s reply seemed to make clear that the secretary had been speaking ironically about a “pinpoint operation” to express that he was disturbed by the deaths of Palestinian civilians, including many children.
The Israeli operation is aimed at militant extremists who have been smuggling arms into Gaza and raining rockets on Israel.
Asked if he was “upset that the Israelis are going too far,” Kerry replied: “It’s very, very difficult in these situations.” He continued: “I reacted, obviously, in a way that anybody does with respect to young children and civilians.”
But on the Fox program and the others, Kerry vociferously defended Israel’s right to take action, including efforts to destroy some of the hundreds of tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle arms and fighters.
“We defend Israel’s right to do what it is doing in order to get at those tunnels,” he said on Fox, and he called Palestinian leaders “intransigent” for turning down a cease-fire plan put forth last week by Egypt.
Since Israel did accept that proposal, he added, “it is important for Hamas to now step up and be reasonable and understand that you accept the cease-fire, you save lives, and that’s the way we can proceed.”