US review of Israel’s war conduct raises ‘serious concerns’

The U.S. has concluded it was “reasonable to assess” Israel has violated international humanitarian law in its war conduct in Gaza, but stopped short of a determinative finding of wrongdoing because the review did not find specific instances of violations.

A highly anticipated report from the State Department, released Friday, that looked into whether Israel violated international humanitarian law, described “sufficient reported incidents to raise serious concerns” about how Israeli forces have carried out the war against Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza.

The report notes that 34,700 Palestinians have been killed amid the war according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. While the United Nations and aid groups say the majority of those killed are women and children, Israel claims that half of those numbers are Hamas fighters. The U.S. government said it could not independently verify the figures.

“Given Israel’s significant reliance on U.S.-made defense articles, it is reasonable to assess that defense articles covered under [the national security memorandum] have been used by Israeli security forces since October 7 in instances inconsistent with its [international humanitarian law] obligations or with established best practices for mitigating civilian harm,” officials wrote in the report.

Still, U.S. officials acknowledged it was “difficult to assess or reach conclusive findings on individual incidents,” which appeared to prevent language for a definitive finding that Israel has violated any laws in the report.

The report drew on assessments from multiple U.S. agencies, including bureaus in the State Department, Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. The intelligence findings further raise concern about Israel’s war conduct, saying that Israel’s security forces “have inflicted harm on civilians in military or security operations, potentially using U.S.-provided equipment.”

While the IC assessment said that there’s no indication Israel directly targeted civilians, it “assesses that Israel could do more to avoid civilian harm, however.”

The State Department said it was difficult to reach conclusive findings on individual incidents because of the lack of personnel on the ground in Gaza. Officials also said Israel has not shared complete information to verify whether U.S. weapons have been used in violation of international humanitarian law in Gaza, the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

The report comes after Biden has paused a delivery of heavy bombs to Israel and vowed to hold more offensive weapons if Israeli forces launch a major operation in Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering.

The reports publication on Friday drew intense backlash from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and who had spearheaded the effort to get the Biden administration to more closely scrutinize Israel’s war actions.

“If this conduct complies with international standards, God help us all,” Van Hollen said in a call with reporters shortly after the State Department transmitted its report to Congress.

“Because that would set a very low bar for what is allowed, it would set a very low bar for the rules of war, it would set a very low bar what’s required to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

The State Department review was ordered by Biden back in February to conduct an assessment of whether Israel has violated international humanitarian law or U.S. law with American-provided weapons.

The review also looked at whether Israel has impeded the delivery of humanitarian aid shipments.

The reports authors provided specific instances of attacks on humanitarian aid deliveries, sheltering Palestinians, and Israeli actions that “delayed or had a negative effect on the delivery of aid to Gaza.”

Still, the report authors say that it does not assess Israel to be “prohibiting or otherwise restricting the transport or delivery of U.S. humanitarian assistance.”

Biden’s pause on the heavy bombs, his criticism of Israel’s military campaign and his threat to withhold more weapons in the event of a Rafah invasion comes amid sweeping college protests and frustration with the war from some Democrats and his left flank.

But the president’s shift in tone on the war has angered Republicans. After the release of the State Department memo, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) piled onto the criticism, arguing that Biden is “trying to have it both ways” in the war.

“Today, the administration has given Israel a politically damaging assessment while publicly announcing it is withholding a select set of precision weapons,” Risch said in a Friday statement. “The administration is attempting to placate voters on the far left at the expense of a close ally in the midst of its justified war with Hamas terrorists.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it was critical to ensure Israel can continue fighting against Hamas but also added that “any operation must take all measures to protect civilian lives.”

“While the most recent report regarding Israel under the [review] has raised concerns, I agree with its assessment that Israel has not violated International Humanitarian Law and that military assistance to support Israel’s security remains in the U.S. interest and should continue,” he said in a statement. “In this regard, I differ with President Biden’s recent decision” to withhold bomb shipments.

The review of humanitarian assistance remains an ongoing assessment.

The United Nations and humanitarian aid groups have accused Israel of slowing the delivery of aid shipments into Gaza, which is facing a severe hunger crisis and a famine in the northern part of the territory. Israel now controls all three major checkpoints that facilitate aid into the strip.

In the report, officials also noted that Israel has repeatedly struck humanitarian aid workers, including seven workers from the charity World Central Kitchen (WCK) in April, despite attempts to avoid those casualties. More than 250 aid workers have died in Gaza.

The State Department review also found credible reports of “Israeli airstrikes impacting civilians and civilian objects unrelated to humanitarian operations that have raised questions about Israel’s compliance with its legal obligations.”

Israel has divided Gaza up into 300 different zones to better assess the level of civilians in each area, but the State Department memo questioned the efficacy of the system. It also raised concerns about the adequacy of Irael’s other methods to prevent civilian casualties, including weapon selection for certain strikes or attacks, advanced warnings and target determination.

“While Israel has the knowledge, experience, and tools to implement best practices for mitigating civilian harm in its military operations,” the report says, “the results on the ground, including high levels of civilian casualties, raise substantial questions as to whether [Israel] is using them effectively in all cases.”

The White House said earlier Friday that Biden was briefed on a the report scrutinizing Israel’s conduct in its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but would not indicate if it influenced his decision to hold back the transfer of thousands of heavy bombs earlier this week.

The State Department transmitted the report to Congress on Friday.

“The president has been briefed and is obviously aware of the contents,” White House national security communications adviser John Kirby told reporters Friday. “I am just not going to get into the specifics of when he was briefed and how that transpired, but he’s fully briefed on it.”

The report was mandated by National Security Memorandum 20, which Biden issued in February under pressure from congressional Democrats to scrutinize Israel’s use of U.S. weapons in its war against Hamas.

The report was due to Congress on Wednesday.

Biden, earlier in the week, paused the transfer of more than 3,000 heavy bombs to Israel. And the president warned in an interview with CNN — broadcast Wednesday — that the U.S. could hold back more arms transfers if Israel launched a major offensive into Rafah, the southern Gazan city believed to be the last holdout for Hamas but sheltering more than 1 million displaced Palestinians.

Kirby said the White House is closely watching Israel’s military operations in Rafah, and that includes a seizure of a crossing with Egypt.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say what we’ve seen in the last 24 hours connotes or indicates a broad, large-scale invasion or major ground operation. It appears to be localized near the crossing,” Kirby said, but added that the White House is watching “with concern.”

Kirby called for Israel to reopen the Rafah crossing for humanitarian assistance deliveries into the strip.

“Every day that that crossing is not available and usable for humanitarian assistance, there’s going to be more suffering and that’s of deep concern to us. And so once again, we urge the Israelis to open up that crossing to humanitarian assistance immediately,” he said. “That aid is desperately needed, and we urge them, as we have in the past, to be as careful, precise and discriminate as they can here so that they are not putting innocent lives at greater risk than they already are. But we’re watching this very closely.”

Israel launched its war against Hamas following its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostage, with approximately 133 still held in the strip.

Biden has supported Israel’s determination to defeat Hamas, but has grown increasingly frustrated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war/ The president has come under pressure from Democrats and protests across the U.S. decrying a staggering Palestinian civilian death toll and an appalling humanitarian crisis.

Efforts to secure a deal between Hamas and Israel to secure the release of hostages and implement a six-week cease-fire fizzled out this week amid discussions in Cairo.

Updated at 7:40 p.m. EDT.

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