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US says Israel’s use of American arms may have violated humanitarian law

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Israel may have used US-made weapons in ways that violate humanitarian rights, according to a state department study that stopped short of formally accusing the Jewish state of breaking international law.

The declassified study sent to Congress found that because of the Israeli military’s heavy reliance on US-made weaponry, it was “reasonable to assess” that American munitions have been used in the Gaza war in ways “inconsistent with [international humanitarian law] or with established practices for mitigating civilian harm”.

The state department assessment of Israel and six other countries engaged in armed conflicts was mandated by President Joe Biden, who in February 2023 issued a directive aimed at imposing stricter oversight on US weapons transfers.

The report on Israel covers the period from the start of the Israel-Hamas war up to the end of April.

In an interview with American talk-show host Phil McGraw, better known as Dr Phil, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the Israeli military’s conduct of the war.

“You can’t hold the Israeli army to standards of avoiding civilian casualties that no army is held to in the world, when actually Israel is doing everything that no other army has done to avoid civilian casualties,” he said.

Biden’s 2023 directive requires recipients of American lethal assistance to provide credible written assurances that they are using weapons in accordance with international law and are not impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The state department had set a May 8 deadline to submit its assessments on Israel, Ukraine and four other countries. The report found that “the assurances provided by each recipient country to be credible and reliable so as to allow the provision of defence articles . . . to continue”.

If the report had found that Israel violated the law, Biden could have restricted arms deliveries. The report comes as the US president is under pressure domestically from anti-war activists who want to see Israel wind down the conflict and allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, where Israel’s offensive has killed 35,000 people according to Palestinian health authorities.

In several areas, the report notes the challenge of drawing individual conclusions about specific incidents in an ongoing conflict, and notes that Hamas “uses civilian infrastructure for military purposes and civilians as human shields”, according to the report’s summary.

It also said Israel had “not shared complete information to verify” whether US weapons were used in specific instances alleged to be against international humanitarian law. The report lists several incidents in which American weapons might have been used in episodes that killed and injured humanitarian workers or caused excessive civilian harm.

While the Israel Defense Forces have undertaken steps to protect civilians in the current conflict, “the results on the ground, including high levels of civilian casualties, raise substantial questions as to whether the IDF is using [US arms] effectively in all cases”, the summary said.

The US ultimately assesses a country’s violation of humanitarian law not just by individual violations but also by the steps the country takes to investigate and determine accountability, the report said.

Nearly 90 House Democrats sent a letter to Biden last week saying “there is sufficient evidence” Israel’s conduct that was preventing aid getting into Gaza violated American law and called into question “the assurances Israel provided” as part of the state department assessment process.

The report notes significant concern about Israeli actions contributing to insufficient aid reaching the Gaza Strip, although it said the situation had improved. Still, the US did not determine that Israel was actively blocking aid from reaching Gaza, according to the report summary.

“We do not currently assess that the Israeli government is prohibiting or otherwise restricting the transport or delivery of US humanitarian assistance,” according to the summary of key findings.

Biden has begun to restrict some American assistance over concerns about Israel’s plans for a widescale offensive in Rafah, which the US thinks will be catastrophic for the more than 1mn civilians who have fled there during the war. Israeli troops and Palestinian militants were engaged on Friday in heavy fighting on the city’s outskirts, with aid largely unable to flow to civilians on the verge of famine.

Last week Biden paused the delivery of a shipment including 3,500 bombs, over concerns over how they could be used in the densely populated urban environment.

The president warned Israel earlier this week that the US would no longer supply certain offensive weapons if Israel proceeds with a full-scale assault on Rafah.

A US-led effort to broker a ceasefire agreement in exchange for the release of Israeli hostages in Gaza has floundered, with another round of talks ending without an agreement earlier this week.

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