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US says Israel’s use of weapons may have violated international law

Washington DC, US

The Biden administration on Friday said Israel’s use of US-supplied weapons may have violated international humanitarian law during its military operation in Gaza, a major step up in criticism of its key ally.

But the administration also said that due to the chaos of the war in Gaza it could not verify specific instances where use of those weapons might have violated international law, falling short of making a definitive assessment on the issue.

A woman mourns Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on 8th May, 2024. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem/File photo

Because of that, the administration ruled that it still finds Israel’s assurances that its use of US weapons in its war against Hamas credible.

The seemingly contradictory assessment came in a State Department report to Congress, required under a new National Security Memorandum (NSM) that President Joe Biden issued in early February.

“Given Israel’s significant reliance on US-made defense articles, it is reasonable to assess that defense articles covered under NSM-20 have been used by Israeli security forces since October 7 in instances inconsistent with its IHL obligations or with established best practices for mitigating civilian harm,” the State Department said in the report.

“Israel has not shared complete information to verify whether US defense articles covered under NSM-20 were specifically used in actions that have been alleged as violations of IHL or IHRL in Gaza, or in the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the period of the report,” it said.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said the administration had “ducked all the hard questions” and avoided looking closely at whether Israel’s conduct should mean military aid is cut off.

“This report contradicts itself because it concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe violations to international law have occurred, but at the same time that says they’re not finding non compliance,” he told reporters.

More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s seven-month-old assault on the Gaza Strip, say health officials in the Hamas-ruled enclave. The war began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on 7th October, killing 1,200 people and abducting

Some 252 others, of whom 133 are believed to remain in captivity in Gaza, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s military conduct has come under increasing scrutiny with the soaring death toll and the level of devastation in the Gaza Strip.

US officials at the State Department have been divided over the issue. Reuters reported in late April that officials in at least four bureaus inside the agency have raised serious concerns over Israel’s conduct in Gaza, laying out specific examples on the country might be in breach of the law.

Rights group Amnesty International in a report also in late April said US-supplied weapons provided to Israel have been used in ‘serious violations” of international humanitarian and human rights law, detailing specific cases of civilian deaths and injuries and examples of use of unlawful lethal force.

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The US Government reviewed numerous reports that raise questions about Israel’s compliance with its legal obligations and best practices for mitigating harm to civilians, the report said.

Those included Israeli strikes on civilian infrastructure, strikes in densely populated areas and others that call into question whether “expected civilian harm may have been excessive relative to the reported military objective.”

In the period after 7th October, the report found, Israel “did not fully cooperate” with US and other international efforts to get humanitarian aid into Gaza. But it said this did not amount to a breach of a US law that blocks the provision of arms to countries that restrict US humanitarian aid.

It said Israel had acted to improve aid delivery since Biden warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a call early last month that Washington would withhold some arms supplies if the humanitarian situation did not improve.

The report said individual violations do not necessarily disprove Israel’s commitment to international humanitarian law, as long as it takes steps to investigate and hold violators accountable.

“Israel’s own concern about such incidents is reflected in the fact it has a number of internal investigations underway,” the report said. A senior State Department official confirmed that none of those investigations had yet led to prosecutions.

– Additional reporting by PATRICIA ZENGERLE


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