Democrats challenge Biden administration: Are US weapons used by Israel in accordance with international law?

This inquiry, led by Texas Representatives Veronica Escobar and Joaquin Castro, targets the very heart of America's foreign arms policies and its ethical implications.

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Image Credit: Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

More than two dozen House Democrats have raised significant questions about the Biden administration’s claims that the Israeli government is using American weapons in compliance with both U.S. and international law. This inquiry, led by Texas Representatives Veronica Escobar and Joaquin Castro, targets the very heart of America’s foreign arms policies and its ethical implications.

On Tuesday, a letter addressed to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines was sent by 26 Democratic representatives. This letter is not just a routine inquiry—it represents a deepening rift between these representatives and President Biden on a critical foreign policy issue, especially notable given Escobar’s role as a national co-chair of Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign. Both Escobar and Castro hold significant positions, with Escobar serving on the House Armed Services Committee and Castro on the intelligence and foreign affairs committees, underscoring the weight of their concerns.

The concerns stem from persistent reports and allegations about Israel’s conduct in Gaza, which critics argue contravene international humanitarian standards. According to these House members, a broad range of voices—including elected officials, international courts, and human rights organizations—have expressed alarm over the actions of the Netanyahu government.

Central to this controversy is President Biden’s National Security Memorandum 20 (NSM-20), issued in February, which mandates that nations receiving U.S. arms must provide “credible and reliable” assurances of compliance with humanitarian law. This memorandum serves as the legal backbone against which Israel’s actions are being measured. Should Israel fail to provide satisfactory assurances, the U.S. is compelled by this policy to pause or suspend military aid.

Amid these policy frameworks, real-world incidents have ignited further scrutiny. State Department spokesperson Matt Miller noted that the U.S. has not found Israel to be in violation of international humanitarian law. However, this assertion sits uncomfortably with reports of Israel having killed approximately 200 humanitarian workers and obstructed aid deliveries for months in Gaza. These actions prompted the U.S. to begin air-dropping aid packages and proposing infrastructure solutions like building a pier to facilitate aid deliveries.

The letter is backed by an array of advocacy groups, ranging from Indivisible and Amnesty International USA to pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans for Peace Now, and the Muslim-led MPower Change Action Fund. These endorsements reflect a broad coalition that is deeply concerned with the U.S.’s ongoing arms transfers under current conditions in Gaza.

Yasmine Taeb, legislative and political director for MPower Action, criticized the acceptance of Israel’s assurances as “outrageous,” given the documented incidents contradicting those assurances. She argues that this situation warrants an immediate suspension of arms to Israel, as outlined under NSM-20.

Historically, the U.S. has faced similar dilemmas. There have been instances when arms transfers were either scrutinized or halted due to concerns over compliance with international laws—most notably during conflicts where the use of U.S.-supplied weapons was linked to civilian casualties or other war crimes. The current situation with Israel thus taps into a longstanding debate over the alignment of U.S. arms policies with global human rights standards.

The Biden administration has maintained its stance that Israel complies with international laws, a position reiterated by White House national security communications adviser John Kirby following an incident where Israeli forces killed seven World Central Kitchen aid workers. Kirby stated that there was no evidence of Israel deliberately attacking aid operations and no incidents found violating international humanitarian law.

“We remain concerned by the stark differences and gaps in the statements being made by the State Department and White House on how Israel has not been found to be in violation of international humanitarian law, either when it comes to the conduct of the war or when it comes to the provision of humanitarian assistance, which are contradictory to those made by prominent experts and global institutions,” states the letter. “Given the dire and catastrophic nature of this war, it is critical to ensure that the U.S. government is fully utilizing the expertise of State Department and DoD officials and legal experts, accounting important intelligence community assessments and data, in thoroughly assessing Israel’s actions in Gaza.”

The letter’s signatories include: The letter’s Democratic signatories are:

  • Earl Blumenauer (OR)
  • Jamaal Bowman (NY)
  • Cori Bush (MO)
  • André Carson (IN)
  • Greg Casar (TX)
  • Sean Casten (IL)
  • Joaquin Castro (TX)
  • Madeleine Dean (PA)
  • Mark DeSaulnier (CA)
  • Lloyd Doggett (TX)
  • Veronica Escobar (TX)
  • Maxwell Alejandro Frost (FL)
  • Jesús “Chuy” García (IL)
  • Pramila Jayapal (WA)
  • Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Jr. (GA)
  • Stephen Lynch (MA)
  • James McGovern (MA)
  • Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC)
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY)
  • Ilhan Omar (MN)
  • Mark Pocan (WI)
  • Ayanna Pressley (MA)
  • Delia Ramirez (IL)
  • Rashida Tlaib (MI)
  • Jill Tokuda (HI)
  • Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ)

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