Tlaib Requests Biden Administration and GAO Assessments of Israel’s Human Rights Compliance Under Leahy Laws and Conventional Arms Transfer Policy

WASHINGTON D.C. – Today, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (MI-12) with Reps. Cori Bush, André Carson, Hank Johnson, and Summer Lee sent letters toPresident Biden and the U.S. Government Accountability Office(GAO) urging them to assess the State Department’s compliance with the Leahy Laws and President Biden’s own Conventional Arms Transfer policy regarding security assistance to the Israeli government given the reports of violations of international law.

On January 5, 2024, a spokesperson for the National Security Council revealed at a press conference that the U.S. government has not conducted any formal review of the Israeli government’s compliance with international law since the war on Gaza began. Congresswoman Tlaib and her colleagues are calling on President Biden and the GAO to do their due diligence to ensure that the law is being followed with U.S. weapons transfers.

Both letters are endorsed by: Adalah Justice Project; Peace Action; Sunrise Movement; Avaaz; American Friends Service Committee; Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC); Jewish Voice for Peace Action; American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC); Emgage Action; Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); United We Dream; MPower Change Action Fund; The Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development; US Campaign for Palestinian Rights; Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ; ReThinking Foreign Policy; Peace Action Montgomery; Center for Jewish Nonviolence; Americans for Justice in Palestine Action (AJP Action); and Women Cross DMZ.

The full text of the letter to President Biden is below and can be found here. The full text of the letter to the Government Accountability Office can be found here.

President Biden,

We write today regarding your Administration’s ongoing weapons transfers to the Israeli government despite considerable evidence that these transfers are flagrantly violating American and international law and being used in the commission of war crimes. It is in this context that we were deeply dismayed and disturbed by comments by National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby on January 5, 2024, in which he stated “I’m not aware of any kind of formal assessment being done by the United States government to analyze the compliance with international law by our partner Israel.” We were further disturbed to learn from a report on January 18, 2024 that the State Department has allegedly systematically used special mechanisms to review and shield Israel from consequences under U.S. law when reviewing potential gross violations of human rights committed by Israeli forces that have Leahy Law implications.

In that light we write to urge you to immediately undertake an assessment as to the State Department’s compliance with your Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy as outlined in your own Memorandum on United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy (NSM-18) released on February 23, 2023, as well as an assessment of the Department’s compliance with the Leahy Laws as it pertains to security assistance to Israel.

Apparent Violations:

Over the course of Israel’s military campaign there have been daily reports of incidents that appear to amount to gross violations of human rights, crimes against humanity and war crimes. While all parties to the conflict have been implicated in apparent violations, only one party, the Netanyahu government of Israel, receives billions of dollars in security assistance from the United States. This assistance risks legally implicating our government as a party to the commission of these alleged violations.

As of January 19, 2024, the Palestinian death toll is at least 24,762, not including the estimated 8,000 human beings lost and presumed dead buried under the rubble of American bombs dropped by Israeli forces. That number includes at least 9,600 children. At least 62,108 Palestinians have been injured, including 8,663 children. A study released by the respected Israeli media outlet Haaretz on December 9, 2023 found that the proportion of Gazan civilians killed compared to the total number of Gazan fatalities is much higher during this conflict than that during bombing campaigns against Gaza over the past decade, a finding that seems to indicate either a complete disregard for civilian life or an intentional targeting of civilians by Israeli forces.

Shortly after the start of this round of fighting Israeli forces cut off essential services and supplies such as water and electricity and have prevented all but a tiny fraction of the food, fuel and medical supplies Gaza needs from entering the besieged territory. According to Human Rights Watch, these are acts of collective punishment that amount to war crimes including the use of starvation as a method of warfare.

The United Nations has consistently expressed alarm at the apparent targeting of medical infrastructure and personnel by Israeli forces, with UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health Tlaleng Mofokeng asserting that, “The practice of medicine is under attack” on December 3, 2023. As of Special Rapporteur Mofokeng’s statement, the UN noted that there had been at least 364 attacks on healthcare services in occupied Palestine, impacting more than 50 healthcare facilities and 190 ambulances, and resulting in at least 553 deaths and 729 injuries. One hospital, the Al-Indonesi hospital was reportedly bombed 35 times between October 7 and December 3, 2023.

On January 10, 2024, The Committee to Protect Jouralists, Freedom House, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and Reporters Without Borders sent you a letter regarding protecting journalists and press freedom in Israel and Palestine. In that letter they note that “more journalists have been killed in the first 10 weeks of the hostilities than have ever been killed in a single country over an entire year,” the vast majority of whom have been killed by Israeli forces. These well-respected press freedom groups go on to highlight that:

“Credible reports by human rights and media organizations indicate that the IDF strikes in southern Lebanon on October 13 that killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah and injured six other journalists from Reuters, Al Jazeera, and Agence France-Presse were unlawful and apparently deliberate. The IDF has also acknowledged deliberately targeting a car in which journalists were traveling on January 7, killing two journalists and seriously injuring a third. In at least two other cases, journalists reported receiving threats from Israeli officials and IDF officers before their family members were killed in Gaza.”

We continue to see widespread reports of Israeli forces and state-sponsored armed groups committing torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges and trial, and the forcible disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons. Amnesty International has documented that “Israeli authorities have dramatically increase[d] their use of administrative detention, a form of arbitrary detention, of Palestinians across the occupied West Bank; extended emergency measures that facilitate inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners; and failed to investigate incidents of torture and death in custody” since the onset of the fighting. For example, the General Director of Gaza City’s al-Shifa Hospital, Muhammad Abu Salmiya, was arrested and forcibly disappeared on December 23, 2023 and remains in detention in an unknown location. These alleged violations are not confined to Gaza, with one victim of an attack on October 12, 2023 by Israel settlers and soldiers in Wadi al-Seeq, a village East of Ramallah, testified to Amnesty International that:

“One of the Israeli officers who came, approached me and kicked me on my left side, then jumped on my head with his two legs pushing my face further into the dirt and then continued kicking me as I was head down, into the dirt, with my hands tied behind my back. He then got a knife and tore all of my clothes off except for my underwear and used part of my torn clothes to blindfold me. The beating to the rest of my body did not stop, at one point he started jumping on my back – three or four times – while yelling ‘die, die you trash’ … in the end before this finally stopped, another officer urinated on my face and body while also yelling at us ‘to die.’”

These examples are just a small selection of the thousands of credible reports from the past few months regarding alleged gross violations of human right, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by Israeli forces and state-backed armed groups. Given the seriousness of the allegations, credible nature of those reporting these allegations, and sheer volume of alleged incidents, we believe that an assessment of Israel’s compliance with your CAT policy in line with the review process outlined in NSM-18 is clearly merited.

Conventional Arms Transfer Policy:

The “Arms Transfers and Human Rights” section of your Conventional Arms Transfer Policy (CAT) reads in part:

…no arms transfer will be authorized where the United States assesses that it is more likely than not that the arms to be transferred will be used by the recipient to commit, facilitate the recipients’ commission of, or to aggravate risks that the recipient will commit: genocide; crimes against humanity; grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, including attacks intentionally directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such; or other serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, including serious acts of gender‑based violence or serious acts of violence against children. This assessment shall include consideration of the available information and relevant circumstances, including the proposed recipient’s current and past actions, credible reports that the recipient committed any of the above violations, and other information related to the overall capacity or intention of the recipient to respect international law.  If a transfer had previously been authorized and circumstances have changed in ways that would materially increase the risk of any of the negative consequences listed above, the United States will re-assess and, as appropriate, review options for ceasing the transfer of or support for a previous authorization.

In our view, the ongoing arms transfers to the Israeli government appear to have comprehensively violated the entirety of the “Arms Transfers and Human Rights” section of your CAT from the outset of its military campaign in Gaza, and in many cases for years if not decades prior. While you may disagree with our assessment, it is undeniable that sufficient credible reports of and information regarding alleged Israeli violations of international law exist to merit an assessment of Israel’s compliance with your CAT policy in line with the review process outlined in NSM-18.

Leahy Laws:

The Leahy Laws – 22 U.S.C. §2378d for the Department of State and 10 U.S.C. §362 for the Department of Defense – prohibit U.S. assistance to foreign security force units when there is credible information that the unit has committed a “gross violation of human rights.” “Gross violation(s) of human rights” are defined by 22 USC § 2304(d)(1) as “torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges and trial, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, and other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of person.”

Similar to the situation with your CAT policy, we believe that it is undeniable that sufficient credible reports of and information regarding alleged Israeli gross violations of human rights exist to merit an assessment of our assistance to relevant units within Israel and the State Department’s compliance with the Leahy Laws.

In Conclusion:

In light of the overwhelming number of credible reports of Israeli violations of international law and gross violations of human rights, we call on you to do the following in a transparent manner without delay:

  1. Complete an assessment of Israel’s compliance with your Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy as outlined in NSM-18 by February 14, 2024 and release that assessment in full to the public immediately upon completion.
  2. If Israel is assessed to not be in compliance with your CAT policy, take immediate action to enforce your own policy and end all relevant weapons sales, transfers and all other non-missile defense related military assistance to the Israeli government, including the cessation of all previously authorized transfers and support.
  3. Complete an assessment as to Israel’s compliance with the Leahy Laws (22 U.S.C. §2378d and 10 U.S.C. §362) by February 14, 2024 and release that assessment in full to the public immediately upon completion.
  4. Should any Israeli units currently receiving or set to receive American assistance be found to have committed gross violations of human rights, fully enforce the Leahy Laws without delay, end and prohibit all assistance to those units, and immediately publicly release and keep up to date a list of all identified units.
    1. If it is determined that it is not possible to continue support for units not found to have committed gross violations of human rights without supporting those that have, it is incumbent on you to cease all American assistance to the Israeli government as the conditions for foreign security forces to be excepted from 22 U.S.C. §2378d and 10 U.S.C. §362 have clearly not been met. Failing to do so puts you and anyone involved in the provision of such support in clear and direct violation of the Leahy Laws.
  5. Should you decide not to take one or more of these steps, we request a written explanation as to your reasoning by no later than February 7, 2024.

If human rights for all people is a principle that this administration would claim to uphold internationally, then you must conduct assessments as to the State Department’s compliance with both of the Leahy Laws and your own Conventional Arms Transfer policy as it pertains to security assistance to Israel. We demand you immediately take the aforementioned steps to enforce these policies without delay.

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