Weekly The Generation, Year 1, Issue 15
December 12, 2023
by Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man
There is a rare debate taking place in mainstream foreign policy circles, including among congressional Democrats, about whether the United States should condition its military support for Israel in light of the massive civilian casualties it has caused in Gaza. President Biden even said it was a “worthwhile thought” last week before the White House clarified he would be doing no such thing. According to a recent report in the Israeli media, however, the Biden administration has begun doing exactly that – putting conditions on continued US support for Israel’s war on Gaza.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, joined a meeting of the Israeli war cabinet in Tel Aviv last week, where, according to a report by Israel’s Channel 12 News on Sunday, he delivered an ultimatum to the Israeli government. Israel, he said, must begin taking the Palestinian civilian population into consideration in all military operations, reduce to the minimum possible the further displacement of civilians, stop blocking the entry and distribution of humanitarian aid and start designating more safe zones where Palestinian civilians can seek refuge from the non-stop bombardment. “The understanding in Israel is that it must do all of that in order to get the continued support it wants from the US,” the report added.
Demanding that recipients of US military assistance comply with the laws of war is entirely unremarkable in every other context. There are multiple US laws that require monitoring and cutting off military aid to countries that use it to violate human rights and commit war crimes – which raises the question of why Biden is creating an entirely separate mechanism to enforce the same standards American lawmakers and his own administration created.
One such law is the Leahy Law, which requires that the US government vet any foreign military unit receiving US training or arms to ensure it has not been responsible for “gross violations of human rights”, a term the law doesn’t bother to define. With Israel, however, the US provides so much military aid that it has become impossible to track down to an individual unit. So the vetting doesn’t actually happen before the provision of military aid to Israel as the law requires.
“[It] would be too resource-intensive – and that’s fair to some extent – to essentially vet the entire Israeli security apparatus for gross violations of human rights,” Josh Paul, a former senior state department official responsible for foreign arms transfers, explained on The Lawfare Podcast last week. Paul resigned in October in protest against a lack of scrutiny or debate over arms transfers to Israel during this war.
Instead of the normal vetting process, the state department created a special procedure just for Israel. “The department has never concluded that a gross violation of human rights occurred, despite what I would say is incredibly credible and convincing evidence to the contrary,” Paul added.
The Leahy Law is just one of many safeguards meant to stop foreign governments from using American weapons to commit human rights violations and war crimes. In February of this year, the Biden administration published its arms transfer policy. The US, it states, will not send weapons overseas if it “assesses that it is more likely than not” that they will be used to commit grave breaches of the Geneva conventions, specifically mentioning “attacks intentionally directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such; or other serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law”.
Just two months before the Hamas attacks that led to this brutal round of fighting, the state department instructed embassies worldwide to monitor and report all incidents of harm to civilians involving American-made arms. Section 620(i) of the Foreign Assistance Act prohibits sending arms to a country that prohibits or restricts the transport or delivery of humanitarian aid.
Instead of using those existing frameworks with tried and tested enforcement mechanisms, Biden is communicating conditions behind closed doors where there can be no oversight or accountability.
That is a problem for the rule of law and for the very idea of a “rules-based order” this administration has been so outspoken about when it comes to Ukraine and Russia. It also strains American credibility by amplifying the double standards that make a mockery of that same rules-based system. One need look no further than the US position on the military occupation of Palestine v the military occupation of Ukraine.
All of this becomes especially troubling when considering the reasons Biden felt the need to break from decades of exempting Israel from similar scrutiny. To make such specific demands suggests that the US government believes – and finds it deeply disturbing – that Israel is not taking into sufficient consideration how many civilians it kills and is forcibly displacing civilians far beyond what’s necessary.
Despite that conclusion, and instead of immediately halting arms transfers, the Biden administration is still sending a bottomless tray of armaments to Israel. The US-Israel relationship needs to be reformed when this war is over and that begins by uniformly applying existing laws and regulations on arms exports – even with Israel.
Author is the director of research for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn). He worked as a journalist in Israel-Palestine for over a decade, including as editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine.
Couryesy by Al Jazeera