U.S. says Israel may have violated international law but evidence is incomplete

Joe Biden has tried to walk an ever-finer line in his support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's war against Hamas

Updated - May 11, 2024 06:42 am IST

Published - May 11, 2024 03:41 am IST - Washington

An Israeli soldier cleans a weapon, near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Israel on May 2, 2024.

An Israeli soldier cleans a weapon, near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Israel on May 2, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The Biden administration said on May 10 that Israel's use of U.S.-provided weapons in Gaza likely violated international humanitarian law but wartime conditions prevented U.S. officials from determining that for certain in specific airstrikes.

The administration's findings of “reasonable” evidence to conclude that its ally had breached international law in its conduct of the war in Gaza, released in a summary of a report being delivered to Congress on Friday, represent the strongest such statement from Biden officials.

But its caveat that it was unable immediately to link specific U.S. weapons to individual strikes by Israeli forces in Gaza could give the administration leeway in any future decision on whether to restrict U.S. provisions of offensive weapons to Israel.

The administration's findings, a first-of-its-kind assessment that was compelled by 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, mostly women and children.

A soon-to-be-released Biden administration review of Israel's use of U.S.-provided weapons in its war in Gaza does not conclude that Israel has violated the terms for their use, according to three people who have been briefed on the matter.

Also Read | Biden says U.S. won’t supply weapons for Israel to attack Rafah, in warning to ally

The report is expected to be sharply critical of Israel, even though it doesn't conclude that Israel violated terms of U.S.-Israel weapons agreements, according to one U.S. official.

The administration's findings on its close ally's conduct of the war, a first-of-its-kind assessment that was compelled by 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, mostly women and children.

Mr. Biden has tried to walk an ever-finer line in his support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's war against Hamas. He has faced growing rancor at home and abroad over the soaring Palestinian death toll and the onset of famine, caused in large part by Israeli restrictions on the movement of food and aid into Gaza. Tensions have been heightened further in recent weeks by Mr. Netanyahu's pledge to expand the Israeli military's offensive in the crowded southern city of Rafah, despite Mr. Biden's adamant opposition.

Mr. Biden is in the closing months of a tough reelection campaign against Donald Trump. He faces demands from many Democrats that he cut the flow of offensive weapons to Israel and denunciation from Republicans who accuse him of wavering on support for Israel at its time of need.

Two U.S. officials and a third person briefed on the national security memorandum to be submitted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Congress discussed the findings before the report's release. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was not yet public.

No further details were immediately available on the results of the administration's review. A senior Biden administration official said the memorandum is expected to be released later Friday, but declined to comment on its conclusions.

Axios first reported on the memorandum's findings.

The Democratic administration took one of the first steps toward conditioning military aid to Israel in recent days when it paused a shipment of 3,500 bombs out of concern over Israel's threatened offensive on Rafah, a southern city crowded with more than a million Palestinians, a senior administration official said.

The presidential directive, agreed to in February, obligated the Defense and State departments to conduct “an assessment of any credible reports or allegations that such defence articles and, as appropriate, defence services, have been used in a manner not consistent with international law, including international humanitarian law.”

The agreement also obligated them to tell Congress whether they deemed that Israel has acted to “arbitrarily to deny, restrict, or otherwise impede, directly or indirectly,” delivery of any U.S.-supported humanitarian aid into Gaza for starving civilians there.

Lawmakers and others who advocated for the review said Mr. Biden and previous American leaders have followed a double standard when enforcing U.S. laws governing how foreign militaries use U.S. support, an accusation the Biden administration denies. They had urged the administration to make a straightforward legal determination of whether there was credible evidence that specific Israeli airstrikes on schools, crowded neighborhoods, medical workers, aid convoys and other targets, and restrictions on aid shipments into Gaza, violated the laws of war and human rights.

Their opponents argued that a U.S. finding against Israel would weaken it at a time it is battling Hamas and other Iran-backed groups. Any sharply critical findings on Israel are sure to add to pressure on Mr. Biden to curb the flow of weapons and money to Israel's military and further heighten tensions with Mr. Netanyahu's hard-right government over its conduct of the war against Hamas.

Any finding against Israel also could endanger Mr. Biden's support in this year's presidential elections from some voters who keenly support Israel.

At the time the White House agreed to the review, it was working to head off moves from Democratic lawmakers and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to start restricting shipments of weapons to Israel.

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