The United States criticizes Israel for its conduct in Gaza

The Biden administration believes Israel most likely violated international standards by failing to protect civilians in Gaza, but has found no specific cases that justify withholding military aid, the State Department told Congress on Friday.

In the administration's most detailed assessment of Israel's conduct in Gaza, the State Department said in a written report that Israel “has the knowledge, experience, and tools to implement best practices to mitigate civilian harm in its operations military”.

But he added that “the findings on the ground, including high levels of civilian casualties, raise substantial questions” about whether the Israel Defense Forces are making sufficient use of such tools.

Even so, the report – which at some points seemed at odds with itself – claimed that the US had no concrete evidence of Israeli violations. He highlighted the difficulty of gathering reliable intelligence from Gaza, Hamas's tactic of operating in civilian areas, and the fact that “Israel has not shared comprehensive information to verify” whether US weapons were used in specific incidents allegedly involving violations of human rights.

The report, commissioned by President Biden, also makes a distinction between the general possibility that Israel violated the law and any conclusions about specific incidents that would demonstrate this. It believes that the guarantees provided by Israel in March on the use of US weapons in accordance with international law are “credible and reliable” and therefore allow for the continued flow of US military aid.

The findings are unrelated to Biden's recent decision to delay the delivery of 3,500 bombs to Israel and his review of other weapons shipments. The president said such actions were a response to Israel's stated plans to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

The report said its findings were hampered in part by the difficulty of gathering reliable intelligence from the war zone and the way Hamas operates in densely populated areas. He also stressed that Israel has begun pursuing possible accountability for suspected violations of the law, a key component in the United States' assessment of whether to provide military aid to allies accused of human rights abuses.

Israel has launched criminal investigations into its military's conduct in Gaza, the report said, and the Israel Defense Forces “are examining hundreds of incidents” that could involve wartime misconduct.

The report also did not find that Israel intentionally impeded humanitarian aid to Gaza.

While concluding that “Israel's action and inaction” have slowed the flow of aid to Gaza, which is desperately short of basic necessities such as food and medicine, he said that “we do not currently believe that the Israeli government is prohibiting or otherwise restricting the transportation or delivery of U.S. humanitarian assistance” into the territory.

Such a discovery would have triggered a U.S. law banning military aid to countries that block such assistance.

Brian Finucane, a former State Department lawyer now a member of the International Crisis Group, said the report “bends over backwards” to avoid concluding that Israel violated any laws, a finding that would put new pressure on Biden to limit weapons to the country.

Finucane, a critic of Israeli military operations, said the report was “more forthcoming” than he expected, but that he still found it “watered down” and heavily “tied up.”

The findings have further angered a minority of Democrats in Congress who have become increasingly critical of Israel's conduct in Gaza. They argue that Israel has indiscriminately killed civilians with American weapons and has intentionally impeded humanitarian aid provided by the United States.

Either would violate U.S. laws governing arms transfers to foreign militaries, as well as international humanitarian law, which is largely based on the Geneva Conventions.

The report did not define the meaning of the other criteria for Israel's actions, “established best practices to mitigate civilian harm,” although it cited Defense Department guidelines on the topic released last year, which include some measures “not required by the law of war”. .”

“If this conduct conforms to international standards, then God help us all,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, told reporters after the report was released. “They don't want to have to take any action to hold the Netanyahu government accountable for what's happening,” he added, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Critics of Biden's retention of most military support for Israel hoped he would use the report as justification to further limit arms deliveries to the country. The United States provides Israel with $3.8 billion in annual military aid, and last month Congress approved another $14 billion in emergency funding.

Mr. Biden ordered the report in a national security memorandum known as NSM-20. Requires all recipients of U.S. military aid engaged in conflicts to provide the United States with written assurances that they will comply with international law and will not impede the delivery of humanitarian aid provided or supported by the U.S. Government.

The report called on the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense to evaluate “any credible reports or allegations” that American weapons may have been used in violation of international law.

Since the president's memorandum was released, an independent task force formed in response has released a lengthy report citing dozens of examples of likely Israeli legal violations. That report noted what it called Israel's “systematic disregard of fundamental principles of international law,” including “attacks launched despite predictably disproportionate harm to civilians” in densely populated areas.

In a statement following the State Department report, the task force called the U.S. document “at best incomplete, and at worst intentionally misleading in defense of acts and conduct that likely violate international humanitarian law and could constitute crimes of war”.

“Once again, the Biden administration faced the facts — and then pulled the curtains,” said members of the task force, including Josh Paul, a former State Department official who resigned in October to protest US military support for the Trump administration. Israel.

The State Department report showed clear sympathy for Israel's military challenge, repeating the Biden administration's previous statements that Israel has the “right to defend itself” following the October 7 Hamas attacks. He also noted that military experts call Gaza “as difficult a battlespace as any military has faced in modern warfare.”

“Because Hamas uses civilian infrastructure for military purposes and civilians as human shields, it is often difficult to determine the facts on the ground in an active war zone of this nature and the presence of legitimate military targets across Gaza,” he said.

Despite this, he identified numerous specific incidents in which the Israeli army killed civilians or aid workers, calling the latter a “specific area of ​​concern.”

Such incidents include the killing of seven World Central Kitchen workers in April. The report notes that Israel has fired officers and reprimanded commanders involved in that attack, which Israel called “a grave mistake,” and is considering bringing legal proceedings.

Other incidents cited include the October 31 and November 1 airstrikes on the crowded Jabaliya refugee camp, which reportedly killed dozens of civilians, including children. It noted Israel's claim that it had targeted a senior Hamas commander and underground Hamas facilities at the site, and that its munitions had “led to the collapse of the tunnels, buildings and infrastructure above them” .

And while the report did not find that Israel intentionally impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid, it listed several examples of ways in which its government had “an adverse effect” on aid distribution. These include “extensive bureaucratic delays” and what is described as the active involvement of some senior Israeli officials in protests or attacks on humanitarian convoys.

The report was delivered to Congress two days after the deadline set by Biden's February memorandum, arriving late Friday afternoon, a favorite time for government officials hoping to minimize the public impact of an announcement. That day, a White House spokesman, John F. Kirby, denied that the delay had any “nefarious” reason.

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