The recent high-profile killings of three Israeli hostages, two women in a Gaza church, and 11 unarmed Palestinian men in front of their family members have raised new global alarm at Israel’s targeting of civilians amid its war in Gaza. The deaths came as part of its ground assault, and as it continues a bombing campaign that even staunch Israel ally President Joe Biden has called “indiscriminate.” Yet, he continues to push for additional, essentially unconditional aid to Israel — despite the fact that some foreign affairs experts say existing US laws meant to safeguard human rights should have long restricted the flow of such assistance.
“We always treat Israel with kid gloves when it comes to potential human rights violations of any kind,” said Josh Paul, who has become a prominent critic of the Biden administration’s Israel policy since resigning from his post as the director of congressional and public affairs at the State Department bureau overseeing American arms sales over concerns about the Israeli response to the October 7 attack by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group designated as a terrorist organization by many countries. “When it comes to suspending or curtailing lethal military assistance, there’s no sign of anyone willing to take any actual steps.”
The US provides more aid to Israel than to any other country, about $3.8 billion annually in recognition of the two states’ “special relationship” that dates back decades. Now, Biden wants Congress to approve an additional $14.3 billion in aid to Israel as part of a broader package that also includes aid for Ukraine and that has been held up over immigration policy negotiations. He also recently circumvented Congress to sell Israel $106 million worth of tank ammunition.
Biden administration officials told CNN that they are not currently considering placing conditions on aid beyond those that already exist in federal law, saying that the US expects Israel to abide by international humanitarian law and that the Israel Defense Forces conducts internal legal reviews of its strikes beforehand.
“We’re not going to do a damn thing other than protect Israel in the process. Not a single thing,” Biden recently told Democratic donors.
But some foreign policy experts say that those existing legal conditions aren’t being adequately enforced against Israel given the high civilian death toll in Gaza, which has exceeded 20,000 since October 7. That includes policies designed to prevent arms transfers that may enable violations of international humanitarian law or to foreign forces suspected of using American weapons to harm civilians. But one law in particular has recently gotten more attention from progressive Democrats: the “Leahy Law.” They argue that the US may be shirking its legal duty to ensure that assistance to Israel is not being used to violate human rights.
First approved by Congress in 1997, the Leahy Law’s purpose is to prevent the US from being implicated in serious crimes committed by foreign security forces that it supports by cutting off aid to a specific unit if the US has credible information that the unit committed a gross violation of human rights. No security forces, not even American ones, are entirely immune to committing such violations.
A State Department spokesperson told Vox that the Leahy Law applies to all countries, including Israel, and that the agency is meeting the requirements under the law. However, some former administration officials and congressional staff say that the law has never had teeth against Israel, despite what human rights experts, both in the US government and outside of it, have identified as substantive evidence that Israel has committed human rights violations both before and during the current Gaza war. The Department of Defense referred Vox to the State Department for comment, and the White House did not respond to a request for comment.
“The Israelis too often seem to act as though international law does not apply to them. And our government has acted as though the Leahy Law doesn’t apply to [the Israelis],” said Tim Rieser, a longtime senior adviser to former Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) who was a key architect of the law. “As a result, there is a kind of culture of impunity — they can do almost anything to the Palestinians without being accountable.” [Continue reading…]