US cites ‘concerns’ about Israeli weapons in Gaza but skirts around saying it violated international law

The Biden administration once again pulled its punches when it comes to Israel.

Despite pressure from Democratic lawmakers and his efforts to stop a major Israeli ground operation in Rafah, President Joe Biden did not use a much-anticipated report on Friday to declare that Israel has violated international law in its war with Hamas. Instead, the State Department document, mandated by a Biden-backed review policy, punted on one of the most controversial issues in the president’s support for Israel.

“It is reasonable to assess” that Israel used American-provided weapons in ways that are “inconsistent” with international law, per the report obtained by POLITICO. It goes on to say that Israel didn’t give the U.S. enough evidence to adjudicate whether those arms were used to violate human rights in Gaza, the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

There have been “sufficient reported incidents to raise serious concerns,” the report continues, flipping between criticism of Israel’s conduct without explicitly calling it out for human rights violations.

Put together, the U.S. offered fodder for both critics and supporters of Israel. There was a whiff of accountability but ultimately no greater reprimand, allowing the Biden administration to continue sending weapons to Israel as it fights Hamas while gingerly appeasing vocal critics. The findings could also be used as a precedent to keep supplying Israel with arms, so long as not enough evidence is produced to clearly prove violations of international law were committed with American weaponry.

The Biden administration promised months ago to issue the report amid growing pressure from Democrats. The goal of the report was to review whether American-provided weapons are being used in conflicts in ways that violate international laws.

The document was originally slated to be released Wednesday, but it was updated right up until it was sent to lawmakers on Friday.

Tensions have been mounting since Biden decided to pause a shipment of weapons to Israel containing thousands of warheads over concern about Israel’s plans to invade Rafah without a credible plan to protect civilians. In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Biden threatened to halt additional weapons sales if Israel launches a major ground operation in the southern Gaza city.

But Israel is already conducting operations in Rafah, where more than a million civilians are sheltering. Satellite imagery indicates the Israeli forces have already moved beyond the Rafah crossing and into the main area of the city. Biden also recently acknowledged that U.S.-made bombs had killed civilians in the conflict.

The new report has already incensed many members of Congress, especially Republicans who saw it as harsh and unnecessary.

“The administration has given Israel a politically damaging assessment while publicly announcing it is withholding a select set of precision weapons,” Idaho’s Jim Risch, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member. He added that the president and his administration are “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.”

The findings also were outraging to Democratic lawmakers, human rights activists and leaders of non-governmental organizations who say the U.S. cannot keep assisting Israel as it bombards Gaza to root out Hamas militants.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a leading critic of Israel’s conduct in the war, said the administration fell “far short” of its difficult mandate. “It fails to do the hard work of making the assessment and ducks the ultimate questions,” he told reporters Friday evening.

“They are staring at all these trees yet concluding that there’s no forest. It reads like a factual analysis and a politicized conclusion,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, president of Refugees International.

“It is clear that Israel is violating international law and obstructing aid into Gaza. In turning a blind eye, the administration is allowing Israel to continue to do so without consequence,” said Abby Maxman, president and CEO of Oxfam America.

The war began Oct. 7 after Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking some 250 others hostage in Gaza. But Israel’s overwhelming response has left some 35,000 Palestinians dead, according to Hamas-controlled Gazan health authorities who do not distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Israel insists that it is following the laws of war and principles of humanitarian aid while doing its best to minimize civilian casualties, even though Hamas militants have embedded themselves and their arsenal within Gaza’s civilian population.

Still, there have been cases where Israeli actions in this war have infuriated U.S. officials. This includes imposing severe restrictions on humanitarian aid allowed to flow into Gaza — where U.S. officials say famine has started to take root — as well as an Israeli airstrike that killed seven World Central Kitchen workerslast month.

White House spokesperson John Kirby declined to confirm the report’s contents earlier on Friday.

“We make clear to any ally or partner who is receiving U.S. military assistance, … make sure they understand our expectations for how those weapons are going to be used in the battlefield,” Kirby said.

Asked by POLITICO if the administration purposefully tried to bury the report right before the weekend, Kirby replied: “The eventual submission of this report is based on the speed work that had to get done to get it ready and not some nefarious effort to make it harder for you guys to report on it.”