US official says Israel sent assurance it is using arms lawfully, days before deadline

Reports indicate Gallant signed letter last week; State Department has until May to assess Israeli guarantee and report to Congress, under new Biden administration requirement

A picture taken in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 7, 2023, shows an Israeli fighter jet dropping flares over Gaza. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
A picture taken in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 7, 2023, shows an Israeli fighter jet dropping flares over Gaza. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Israel has submitted a letter to the Biden administration committing to use American-supplied weapons in Gaza in accordance with international humanitarian law, a US official said Wednesday, meeting a key US condition to avoid putting future arms transfers at risk.

The US has yet to publicly confirm having received the assurance from Israel, despite reports that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant signed the relevant letter last week.

Israel had until a March 24 deadline to submit the written assurance.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that the US had not yet received the written assurance from Israel, but a US official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that the written assurance had made it to Washington.

The US State Department now has until early May to assess the credibility of the Israeli assurance and submit a report to Congress on the matter.

The written assurance is a new condition the US placed on all aid recipients, laid out in a memo signed by Biden on February 8. US security aid recipients were already required to use it the funds in line with international law, though the request for written assurances was new.

The directive does not single out Israel, but it came at a time of increasing calls from progressive lawmakers for conditions on US aid to the Jewish state, amid concerns that Jerusalem was not doing enough to protect civilians in Gaza.

Israel launched a military offensive in Gaza on October 7 in response to a brutal onslaught by thousands of Hamas-led terrorists based in the Strip, who murdered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped 253.

US President Joe Biden, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, to discuss the the war between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Pool Photo via AP)

Earlier this month, the Walla news site reported that a defense official warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a war cabinet meeting that failure to send in the assurance would turn a technical matter into a diplomatic incident.

The February 8 memo stated that US departments and agencies will “engage with foreign partners to share and learn best practices for reducing the likelihood of and responding to civilian casualties, including through appropriate training and assistance.”

“In order to effectively implement certain obligations under United States law, the United States must maintain an appropriate understanding of foreign partners’ adherence to international law, including, as applicable, international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”

Countries receiving military aid from the US were given 180 days to provide the required assurances, the memo said, but those, like Israel, who were engaged in active conflicts had only 45 days.

US officials left open the possibility that arms sales could be halted or delayed without the assurance.

IDF troops operate at Shifa Hospital in the Gaza Strip, in a handout image published by the military on March 19, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The memo was criticized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at the time, which called it “an unnecessary directive that imposes new requirements on Israel and our other most important allies.”

The White House has shown increasing willingness in recent months to voice dissatisfaction with Israel over civilian casualties in Gaza and the humanitarian situation there, including adopting a harsher tone.

The memo was issued shortly after Biden said during a conference that Israel’s conduct in the Strip has been “over the top.”

This picture taken from Israel’s southern border with the Gaza Strip shows Israeli army battle tank at a position along the border with the Palestinian territory on March 19, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, visiting Tel Aviv last month, said that Israel cannot use the October 7 attack as “a license to dehumanize others,” in a stinging rebuke from the administration.

Tensions have escalated over Israel’s plans for a large-scale ground operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which is both Hamas’s last major stronghold in the Strip and where over a million Gazans displaced by the fighting are now located.

Biden told MSNBC earlier this month that an Israeli invasion of Rafah would be a “red line,” but said he would not stop sales of defensive arms like Iron Dome anti-missile interceptors.

Palestinians perform the first Friday noon prayer of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan over the ruins of of Al-Farouq Mosque on March 15, 2024 in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

For months, the US indicated that it could potentially support an offensive if — and only if — Israel presented a credible plan beforehand for how to protect civilians sheltering in the southern Gaza city.

In a phone call with Netanyahu Monday, Biden effectively ruled out support for a major ground offensive in Rafah, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu said that while he will soon approve plans for an evacuation of the civilian population, preparations for a military operation will “take some time.”

The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said on Wednesday that 104 Palestinians had been killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip in the past 24 hours, bringing its official death toll since October 7 to 31,923.

These figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 13,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

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