update deskU.S. News

State Department raises ‘serious concerns’ about arms transfers to Israel

The new U.S. report finds it “reasonable to assess” that Israel has acted inconsistently with international law but does not conclude that it violated arms transfer agreements with Washington.

Israeli Air Force F-35 Stealth Fighter jet flying during an airshow at Hatzerim on June 28, 2018. Credit: Andreas Zeitler/Shutterstock.
Israeli Air Force F-35 Stealth Fighter jet flying during an airshow at Hatzerim on June 28, 2018. Credit: Andreas Zeitler/Shutterstock.

The U.S. State Department issued a report to Congress about U.S. arms transfers to Israel on Friday that is deeply critical of the Jewish state but stops short of concluding that it is violating international law.

All seven of the countries detailed in the 46-page report are deemed by the U.S. government to have provided “credible and reliable” assurances that they are complying with international law and that Washington can therefore continue to provide them with arms.

The report was sent in response to U.S. President Joe Biden’s National Security Memorandum 20 (NSM-20), which requires the U.S. State and Defense Departments to report annually on whether countries that receive U.S.-provided weapons are using them “in a manner not consistent with international law, including international humanitarian law” or whether the country has impeded American humanitarian aid.

Those standards are in line with existing U.S. requirements on arms transfers known as the Leahy Laws, named for former Democratic senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. But Friday’s report is the first time an administration has delivered a broad outline to Congress about whether countries receiving foreign military assistance are violating international law.

While the report does not conclude that Israel is in violation of the requirements for U.S. arms transfers, it says that Israel has provided only “limited information” about the use of U.S.-made munitions in “incidents that raise concerns about Israel’s international humanitarian law compliance.”

“It is difficult to assess or reach conclusive findings on individual incidents,” the report says. “Nevertheless, given Israel’s significant reliance on U.S.-made defense articles, it is reasonable to assess that defense articles covered under NSM-20 have been used by Israeli security forces since Oct. 7 in instances inconsistent with its international humanitarian law obligations or with established best practices for mitigating civilian harm.”

The report adds that individual violations of international humanitarian law do not mean that a country is not committed to following the law. It also notes that Israel has “a number of ongoing, active criminal investigations pending and there are hundreds of cases under administrative review” about its own conduct.

John Kirby, the White House national security communications advisor, told reporters on Friday before the report’s release that its delivery late on a Friday was not intended to reduce its impact in the media.

“It almost sounds like you think we’re trying to bury something on a Friday afternoon,” Kirby said. “I understand that it’s a Friday, and I can look at the clock and see where we are, but I can tell you that whatever the timing is of the eventual submission of this report, it’s based on the spade work that had to get done to get it ready.”

Kirby declined to describe the contents of the report but said that U.S. President Joe Biden had been briefed on it. Biden told CNN on Wednesday that Israel had used U.S. weapons to kill Palestinian civilians.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers,” Biden said. 

Biden issued NSM-20 in February, calling for the first reports to be submitted to Congress within 90 days—a deadline that the State Department missed on Wednesday.

In March, the Israeli government provided a written letter to the Biden administration declaring that it abides by international law when using U.S. weapons, which was another requirement of Biden’s memorandum.

The State Department assessed in April that three Israeli battalions and two “civilian authority units” were credibly “alleged to be responsible for incidents of gross human rights violations against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.” 

But in a letter to Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.), U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said those incidents “long predate Oct. 7, 2023,” adding that no actions had been taken against the units.

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