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U.S. says Israel’s use of U.S. arms likely violated international law, but evidence is incomplete

WASHINGTON — 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 in its conduct of the war in Gaza was released in a summary of a report being delivered to Congress on Friday. It is the strongest statement that the Biden administration has made yet.

But the caveat that the U.S. 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 provisions of offensive weapons to Israel.

The first-of-its-kind assessment, which was compelled by President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress, comes after seven months of airstrikes, ground fighting and aid restrictions in Gaza.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 led an assault into Israel, killing about 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostages. The offensive has claimed the lives of nearly 35,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza.

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 Israel’s security forces in instances “inconsistent” with its obligations under international humanitarian law “or with best practices for mitigating civilian harm.”

Israel’s military 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.

Israel says it is following all U.S. and international law, that it investigates allegations of abuse by its security forces and that its campaign in Gaza is proportional to the existential threat it says is posed by Hamas terrorists.

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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war against Hamas terrorists. 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 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.

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 defense articles and, as appropriate, defense 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 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.

On this question, the report cited “deep concerns” that Israel played a significant role in preventing adequate aid from reaching Palestinians. However, it said Israel had recently taken some positive steps 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.

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