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Biden administration thinks Israeli use of U.S. weapons in Gaza likely violated international law | CBC News

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The Biden administration said Friday 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 finding of “reasonable” evidence to conclude that the U.S. ally had breached international law, protecting civilians, in the way it conducted its war against Hamas was the strongest statement that the Biden administration has made on the matter. It was released in a summary of a report being delivered to Congress on Friday.

But the caveat that the administration wasn’t able 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 first-of-its-kind assessment, which was compelled by U.S. President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress, comes after seven months of airstrikes, ground fighting and aid restrictions that have killed nearly 35,000 Palestinians, according to health authorities in Gaza.

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas led a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people — with multiple Canadians among the dead — and taking more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. In response to the attack, Israel launched a campaign in Gaza aimed at destroying the militant group and its infrastructure.

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While U.S. officials were unable to gather all the information they needed on specific strikes, the report said “given Israel’s significant reliance” on U.S.-made weapons, it was “reasonable to assess” that they had been used by Israeli security forces in instances “inconsistent” with its obligations under international humanitarian law “or with best practices for mitigating civilian harm.”

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) has the experience, technology and know-how to minimize harm to civilians, but “the results on the ground, including high levels of civilian casualties, raise substantial questions as to whether the IDF is using them effectively in all cases,” the report said.

Political pressures for Biden

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who led the push in Congress, told reporters that even even though the administration had reached a general finding, “they’re ducking a determination on the hard cases, politically inconvenient cases.”

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

U.S. President Joe Biden waves to the press before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on May 9, 2024.
U.S. President Joe Biden waves to the press before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on Thursday. The U.S. leader has tried to walk an ever-finer line in his support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war against Hamas. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. president has faced growing rancour at home and abroad. Tensions have been heightened further in recent weeks by Netanyahu’s pledge to expand the Israeli military’s offensive in the crowded southern city of Rafah, despite Biden’s adamant opposition.

Biden is in the closing months of a tough re-election 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.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the review was unnecessary “and only contributes to politically motivated anti-Israel sentiment.”

“Now is the time to stand with our ally Israel and ensure they have the tools they need,” he said in a statement.

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The presidential directive, agreed to in February, obligated the U.S. Defence 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.”

Nothing in the presidential directive would have triggered any cutoff of arms if the administration had more definitively ruled that Israel’s conduct had violated international law.

The agreement also obligated them to tell U.S. 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.

On this question, the report cited “deep concerns” that Israel played a significant role in preventing adequate aid from reaching starving Palestinians. However, it said Israel had recently taken some positive steps, although still inadequate, and the U.S. government did not currently find Israel restricting aid deliveries in a way that violated U.S. law governing foreign militaries that receive U.S. military aid.

A view of a makeshift camp in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians have been sheltering amid the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
A view of a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, in the Gaza, is seen Friday. (Abdel Kareem Hana/The Associated Press)

Lawmakers and others who advocated for the review said Biden and previous U.S. 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 neighbourhoods, 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 Biden to curb the flow of weapons and money to Israel’s military, and further heighten tensions with Netanyahu’s government over its conduct in its war against Hamas.

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