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American Panel Accuses Israel Defense Forces of 'Systematic Pattern of War Crimes'

This handout picture released by the Israeli army on April 22, 2024, shows Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip.
This handout picture released by the Israeli army on April 22, 2024, shows Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip.

On the day President Joe Biden is signing a $26 billion in wartime assistance package to Israel, an unofficial panel of American academicians and former State Department officials called for the suspension of U.S. arms transfers to Israel, accusing the Israel Defense Forces of a “systematic pattern of war crimes.”

In a report released Wednesday, the Independent Task Force on the Application of National Security Memorandum-20 (NSM-20) casts doubts on the assurances of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that Israel is using American weapons in full compliance with U.S. and international law. The assurances were mandated by the NSM-20 memo issued by Biden in February.

The volunteer group, which includes vocal critics of Israel’s conduct of the war, said it reviewed thousands of incident reports, including on IDF airstrikes on Al Maghazi refugee camp and Jabalia refugee camp that killed 68 and 39 people respectively. An IDF strike on an apartment building in Central Gaza that killed at least 106 civilians, including 54 children was also cited.

In many of these instances, human rights groups found no evidence of a military target in the vicinity at the time of the attack, and no advance warning from Israeli authorities.

In conclusion, the group said that the IDF has violated humanitarian laws, including by employing U.S. weapons in unlawful strikes and placing restrictions on humanitarian assistance to the people in Gaza.

The task force is co-chaired by Noura Erakat, who is an associate professor of international law at Rutgers University and a Palestinian-American activist, and Josh Paul, who was the director of the State Department agency that handles weapons transfers until he resigned in October in protest over U.S. “continued lethal assistance to Israel.” Both have previously criticized Israel's conduct on the war in Gaza and Biden's support of Israel.

“A combination of reliance on U.S. weapons and AI technologies for the purpose of generating targets with little human oversight, together with relaxed rules of engagement, have established a context of systematic violations of international humanitarian law,” Erakat said. “The United States has been central to a crisis among international legal institutions and mechanisms established precisely to avert these outcomes.”

Members of the six-person task force include academicians and former administration officials. Among them are Rutgers Law School professor of law and ethics of armed conflict Adil Haque, former director of the State Department's Office of Security and Human Rights Charles O. Blaha, retired U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Wes J. Bryant, and professor of international law at Nottingham Law School Luigi Daniele.

Under NSM-20, Biden directed the departments of State and Defense to report to Congress within 90 days on whether U.S. partners who were provided with American weapons have complied with international and U.S. laws.

That includes the Leahy Laws, two legislative provisions named for Senator Patrick Leahy that mandate the U.S. cut off assistance to any foreign military or law enforcement units if it determines there is credible evidence of human rights violations.

Israel provided its assurances of NSM-20 compliance in March, and the State Department has until May 8 to report to Congress whether it finds Israel's assurances credible.

The task force said their report is intended to inform the administration's reporting to lawmakers. They said they submitted the report to the administration on April 18 before publicly releasing it Wednesday.

NSM-20 focuses only on U.S. weapons funded by congressional appropriations. “But even within those narrow parameters, the evidence is clear: the U.S. taxpayer is funding a systematic pattern of war crimes by the Israeli Defense Forces,” Paul said.

Determining whether countries use American weapons lawfully can be “quite tricky,” said Sarah Harrison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group's U.S. Program.

“The U.S. government doesn't track equipment that way,” she told VOA. However, she added, there’s compelling evidence for the administration to assess and to be “very critical” of Israeli actions before and since the Netanyahu government provided its assurances.

Twenty-six House Democrats, members of Biden’s own party, sent a letter to top administration officials earlier this month, questioning their acceptance of Israel's statement of compliance of U.S. laws.

Restrictions on IDF

The U.S. State Department is also set to release investigation findings on whether to restrict assistance to Israeli military units accused of human rights violations in the West Bank, mostly before the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7.

If it announces restrictions, it would be the first time the U.S. has prohibited assistance to the Israeli military. U.S. officials declined to identify the units, but Israeli media said that it would include Netzah Yehuda, a military unit made up mostly of ultra-Orthodox Israeli soldiers that operated primarily in the West Bank before it was reassigned to the northern border in 2022.

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said an announcement of the findings is expected “in the days ahead.”

Blinken spoke during the release of the State Department’s 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The report, released Monday, cited several reported rights violations committed in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in 2023 by the IDF, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, before and after October 7.

Netanyahu and the head of the Israeli opposition, Benny Gantz, protested potential U.S. plans to restrict aid during a Sunday phone call with Blinken, their offices said.

It would be the “height of absurdity and a moral low,” at a time when Israeli troops are battling Hamas, Netanyahu said in a social media post. He vowed to “act by all means” against any restrictions.

In a statement, Gantz’s office said he told Blinken the announcement “will harm Israel’s international legitimacy during wartime.”

Restricting U.S. aid would be “symbolically important,” Harrison said, as it reflects a shift in the relationship between the two countries and “the way in which Israel has been given special treatment under law and policy.”

However, there would be no impact on the battlefield. While those units will be barred from receiving U.S. assistance, Israel can purchase American weapons using its own funds and provide them to those units and still be in compliance under Leahy laws, she added.

Conditioning aid

Following Israel’s deadly April 1 strikes on a convoy operated by the international food aid group World Central Kitchen, Biden warned Netanyahu that he will change policy unless Israel adjusts its war conduct. The warning is widely understood as Biden suggesting he would condition aid to Israel.

Israel has since taken steps to allow more aid into Gaza, and the threats of restricting aid appear to have subsided. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, Biden argued that Israel's defenses must “remain fully stocked and ready.”

"Israel is our strongest partner in the Middle East; it's unthinkable that we would stand by if its defenses were weakened and Iran was able to carry out the destruction it intended," he said, referring to the hundreds of drone and missile attacks launched by Tehran on Israel on April 13. Iran says the strikes were in response to Israel’s earlier bombing of its consulate in Damascus.

Most Democrats support funding for air defense systems such as Iron Dome, Iron Beam and David's Sling that protect Israeli skies from missiles, rockets and drones. But some are concerned about funding for the types of arms that have killed civilians in Gaza. For months they’ve called on Biden to restrict military aid on such weapons.

But defensive armaments are not enough, said Richard Goldberg, senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Every democracy needs an offense,” he told VOA. “No democracy should be forced to sit like a turtle inside of its shell, taking hundreds of ballistic missiles incoming and praying to God that you're going to get them all because of defensive systems.”

Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid, nearly $4 billion a year, most of it in the form of military assistance.

Late Tuesday the Senate passed the supplemental $26 billion aid package for Israel, part of a series of legislation that also provides $61 billion in aid for Ukraine and more than $8 billion for U.S. security in the Indo-Pacific.