Some US officials tell Blinken Israel’s use of American arms may not follow int’l law; others back Israeli assurances

Smoke billows following an Israeli strike north of Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip on April 27, 2024. (AFP)
Smoke billows following an Israeli strike north of Nuseirat in the central Gaza Strip on April 27, 2024. (AFP)

WASHINGTON — Some senior US officials have advised Secretary of State Antony Blinken that they do not find “credible or reliable” Israel’s assurances that it is using US-supplied weapons in accordance with international humanitarian law, according to an internal State Department memo reviewed by Reuters.

Other officials uphold support for Israel’s representation.

A joint submission from four bureaus – Democracy Human Rights & Labor; Population, Refugees and Migration; Global Criminal Justice and International Organization Affairs – raises “serious concern over non-compliance” with international humanitarian law during Israel’s prosecution of the Gaza war.

There were no indications that the recommendation would be decisive, and the State Department’s human rights bureau is often known to be more critical of Israel while remaining less involved in the administration’s decision-making.

Under a National Security Memorandum (NSM) issued by US President Joe Biden in February, Blinken must report to Congress by May 8 whether he finds credible Israel’s assurances that its use of US weapons does not violate US or international law.

By March 24, at least seven State Department bureaus had sent in their contributions to an initial “options memo” to Blinken. Parts of the memo, which has not been previously reported, were classified.

The submissions to the memo provide the most extensive picture to date of the divisions inside the State Department over whether Israel might be violating international humanitarian law in Gaza.

Illustrative: An F-35 at Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, June 29, 2023. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

“Some components in the department favored accepting Israel’s assurances, some favored rejecting them and some took no position,” a US official says.

The assessment from the four bureaus says Israel’s assurances were “neither credible nor reliable.” It cites eight examples of Israeli military actions that the officials say raise “serious questions” about potential violations of international humanitarian law.

These include repeatedly striking protected sites and civilian infrastructure; “unconscionably high levels of civilian harm to military advantage”; taking little action to investigate violations or to hold to account those responsible for significant civilian harm and “killing humanitarian workers and journalists at an unprecedented rate.”

Israel faces a difficult task limiting civilian casualties in its mission to eliminate the Hamas terror group. It has repeatedly said and provided evidence that the terror group is using civilians as human shields, embedding itself in civilian infrastructure, including by locating operations bases under hospitals.

The assessment from the four bureaus also cites 11 instances of Israeli military actions the officials said “arbitrarily restrict humanitarian aid,” including rejecting entire trucks of aid due to a single “dual-use” item, “artificial” limitations on inspections as well as repeated attacks on humanitarian sites that should not be hit.

Another submission to the memo reviewed by Reuters, from the Bureau of Political and Military Affairs, which deals with US military assistance and arms transfers, warns Blinken that suspending US weapons would limit Israel’s ability to meet potential threats outside its airspace and require Washington to re-evaluate “all ongoing and future sales to other countries in the region.”

Any suspension of US arms sales would invite “provocations” by Iran and aligned militias, the bureau says in its submission, illustrating the push-and-pull inside the department as it prepares to report to Congress.

The submission does not directly address Israel’s assurances.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference at the US Embassy in Beijing, China, April 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Inputs to the memo from the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism and US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew say they assessed Israel’s assurances as credible and reliable, a second US official tells Reuters.

The State Department’s legal bureau, known as the Office of the Legal Adviser, “did not take a substantive position” on the credibility of Israel’s assurances, a source familiar with the matter says.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller says the agency doesn’t comment on leaked documents.

“On complex issues, the Secretary often hears a diverse range of views from within the Department, and he takes all of those views into consideration,” Miller says.

When asked about the memo, an Israeli official says: “Israel is fully committed to its commitments and their implementation, among them the assurances given to the US government.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Biden administration officials repeatedly have said they have not found Israel in violation of international law.

Blinken has seen all of the bureau assessments about Israel’s pledges, the second US official says.

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