US says Israel’s use of US weapons likely violated international law, but evidence is incomplete

WASHINGTON-

The Biden administration said Friday that Israel’s use of U.S.-supplied weapons in Gaza likely violated international humanitarian law, but wartime conditions prevented U.S. officials from determining that with certainty on specific airstrikes.

The finding of “reasonable” evidence to conclude that the US ally had violated international law protecting civilians in the way it carried out its war against Hamas was the strongest statement the Biden administration has made yet. on the matter. It was published in a summary of a report that will be delivered to Congress on Friday.

But his warning that he could not immediately link specific American weapons to individual attacks by Israeli forces in Gaza could give the administration leeway in any future decision on whether to restrict American supplies of offensive weapons to Israel.

The first-of-its-kind assessment, requested by US President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress, comes after seven months of airstrikes, ground fighting and aid restrictions that have claimed the lives of nearly 35,000 Palestinians, in mostly women and children.

While U.S. officials could not gather all the information they needed about specific attacks, the report said that given Israel’s “significant dependence” on U.S.-made weapons, it was “reasonable to assess” that they had been used by U.S. forces. Israel’s security policy in cases “inconsistent” with its obligations under international humanitarian law “or with best practices to mitigate civilian harm.”

Israel’s military has the experience, technology and knowledge to minimize harm to civilians, but “the results on the ground, including high levels of civilian casualties, raise substantial doubts about whether the IDF is using them effectively.” in all cases,” he said. the report said.

International human rights groups and a review by an unofficial panel of former state and military officials, academic experts and others had pointed to more than a dozen Israeli airstrikes for which they said there was credible evidence of law violations. of war and humanitarian law. Targets included aid convoys, medical workers, hospitals, journalists, schools and refugee centers and other sites that enjoy broad protection under international law.

They argued that the civilian death toll in many attacks in Gaza (such as the October 31 attack on an apartment building that reportedly killed 106 civilians) was disproportionate to the value of any military target.

Israel says it is following all US and international laws, that it is investigating allegations of abuse by its security forces and that its campaign in Gaza is proportionate to the existential threat it says Hamas poses.

Rep. Michael McCaul, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the review “only contributes to politically motivated anti-Israel sentiment” and should never have been done.

“Now is the time to support our ally Israel and ensure it has the tools it needs,” he said in a statement.

But Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who led the effort in Congress, told reporters that while the administration had reached a general conclusion, “they are avoiding a determination on the difficult cases. “Politically inconvenient cases.”

United States President Joe Biden boards Marine One at Moffett Airfield in Mountain View, California (José Carlos Fajardo/Pool Photo via AP)

The United States “treats the government of Israel as if it were above the law,” Amanda Klasing of the human rights group Amnesty International USA said in a statement.

Biden has tried to walk an increasingly fine line in his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war against Hamas. The American leader is the target of growing resentment at home and abroad over the rising Palestinian death toll and the onset of famine, caused in large part by Israeli restrictions on the movement of food and aid to Gaza. Tensions have further escalated in recent weeks over Netanyahu’s pledge to expand the Israeli military offensive in the busy southern city of Rafah, despite strong opposition from Biden.

Biden, in the final months of a tough reelection campaign against Donald Trump, faces demands from many Democrats that he cut off the flow of offensive weapons to Israel and complaints from Republicans who accuse him of wavering in his support for Israel in its time of need. .

The Democratic administration took one of the first steps to condition military aid to Israel in recent days when it halted a shipment of 3,500 bombs over concerns about the threat of an Israeli offensive in Rafah, a southern city packed with more than a million of Palestinians, a senior administration official said. the official said.

The presidential directive that led to the review, agreed to in February, required the Departments of Defense and State to conduct “an evaluation of any credible report or allegation that such defense articles and, as applicable, defense services, are have been used in an unauthorized manner.” consistent with international law, including international humanitarian law.” Nothing in the presidential directive would have triggered an arms cut if the administration had ruled more definitively that Israel’s conduct had violated international law.

The agreement also required them to report to Congress if they believed Israel had acted to “deny, restrict or otherwise impede, directly or indirectly” any US-supported humanitarian aid to Gaza for starving civilians there.

On this issue, the report cited “deep concerns” that Israel has played a major role in preventing adequate aid from reaching starving Palestinians. However, he said that Israel had recently taken some positive, if still inadequate, steps and that the US government did not currently find that Israel restricted aid deliveries in a way that violated US law governing foreign militaries receiving aid. American military aid.

Van Hollen accused the administration of overlooking what he said were clear Israeli blockades on food and aid deliveries for much of the war.

“That’s why we have hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have nothing to do with Hamas on the brink of famine,” he said.

Lawmakers and others who advocated for the review said Biden and previous U.S. leaders have followed double standards in enforcing U.S. laws governing how foreign militaries use American support, a charge the Biden administration denies.

His opponents argued that a US ruling against Israel would weaken it at a time when it is fighting Hamas and other Iranian-backed groups. Any highly critical findings about Israel are sure to increase pressure on Biden to stem the flow of weapons and money to Israel’s military and further raise tensions with Netanyahu’s far-right government over its conduct of the war against Hamas.

At the time the White House agreed to the review, it was working to prevent moves by Democratic lawmakers and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to begin restricting arms shipments to Israel.

Palestinians mourn their relatives killed in the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip on May 10, 2024. (Ismael Abu Dayyah/AP Photo)

Israel launched its offensive after an Oct. 7 attack on Israel, led by Hamas, killed about 1,200 people. Two-thirds of the Palestinians killed since then have been women and children, according to local health officials. U.S. and U.N. officials say Israeli restrictions on food shipments since Oct. 7 have led to widespread famine in northern Gaza.

Human rights groups have long accused Israeli security forces of committing abuses against Palestinians and accused Israeli leaders of failing to hold those responsible accountable. In January, in a case brought by South Africa, the UN’s top court ordered Israel to do everything possible to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza, but the panel stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive.

Biden said in December that “indiscriminate bombings” were costing Israel international support. After Israeli forces attacked and killed seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in April, the Biden administration signaled for the first time that it could cut military aid to Israel if it did not change its handling of the war and humanitarian aid.

US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, in the 1980s and early 1990s, were the last presidents to openly withhold weapons or military funding to try to pressure Israel to change its actions in the region or toward the Palestinians.

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