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Arms Suppliers to Israel & Hamas Should Face War Crime Charges—But Will They?

A night-time bombardment of Gaza City. Credit: UNICEF/Eyad El Baba

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 9 2023 (IPS) - The killings of thousands of civilians in the ongoing Middle East conflict are largely the result of an uneven battle—a nuclear-armed Israel, equipped with some of the most sophisticated American weapons systems, fighting a rag-tag militant group, Hamas.

Against this backdrop, a leading human rights organization, is appealing to Israel’s key allies—including the US, UK, Canada and Germany—to suspend military assistance and arms sales to Israel “so long as its forces commit widespread, serious abuses amounting to war crimes against Palestinian civilians with impunity”.

Iran and other governments, says Human Rights Watch (HRW), should also cease providing arms to Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, so long as they systematically commit attacks amounting to war crimes against Israeli civilians.

But the killings by the Israelis far outnumber the killings by Hamas, according to conservative estimates. Since October 7, about 1,400 Israelis and other nationals have been killed, and more than 10,000 Palestinians,40 percent of them children.

“Civilians are being punished and killed at a scale unprecedented in recent history in Israel and Palestine,” said Bruno Stagno, chief advocacy officer at Human Rights Watch. “The United States, Iran and other governments risk being complicit in grave abuses if they continue to provide military assistance to known violators.”

Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of HRW, was quoted as saying Israel dropping several large bombs in the middle of a densely populated refugee camp was completely and predictably going to lead to a significant and disproportionate loss of civilian lives and therefore a war crime.

Describing Israel’s military “as part of the US war machine”, Norman Solomon, national director of and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, told IPS the solid bedrock alliance between Israel and the US has ensured the continuation of a 10-year deal that guarantees $38 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel.

And now, as the carnage in Gaza continues, he pointed out, Washington is rushing to provide extra military assistance worth $14 billion.

During the last several weeks, he said, “international humanitarian law” has been a common phrase coming from President Biden while expressing support for Israel’s military actions.

It’s an Orwellian absurdity, as if saying the words is sufficient, while constantly helping Israel to violate international humanitarian law in numerous ways, declared Solomon.

HRW said future military transfers to Israel in the face of ongoing serious violations of the laws of war risk making the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany complicit in these abuses if they knowingly and significantly contribute to them. Providing weapons to Palestinian armed groups, given their continuing unlawful attacks, risks making Iran complicit in those violations.

US President Joseph R. Biden has requested US$14.3 billion for further arms to Israel in addition to the $3.8 billion in US military aid Israel receives annually.

On November 2, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would provide that military aid to Israel. Since October 7, the United States has either transferred or announced it is planning to transfer Small Diameter Bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance kits, 155mm artillery shells, and a million rounds of ammunition, among other weapons.

The United Kingdom has licensed the sale of GBP£442 million worth of arms ($539 million) to Israeli forces since 2015, including aircraft, bombs, and ammunition. Canada exported CDN$47 million ($33 million) in 2021 and 2022. Germany issued licenses for €862 million ($916 million) in arms sales to Israel between 2015 and 2019, according to HRW.

Hamas leadership publicly said in January 2022 that it received at least US$70 million in military assistance from Iran, but did not specify during what period of time this support was provided.

“How many more civilian lives must be lost, how much more must civilians suffer as a result of war crimes before countries supplying weapons to Israel and Palestinian armed groups pull the plug and avoid complicity in these atrocities?” Stagno said.

The United Nations, once described the deaths and destruction in the eight-year-old civil war in Yemen as “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster”.

The killings of mostly civilians have been estimated at over 100,000, with accusations of war crimes against a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), whose primary arms supplier is the US.

And now, the killings of Palestinians in Gaza have come back to haunt the Americans in a new war zone. But still, the US is unlikely to be hauled before the International Criminal Court (ICC)., nor was it charged for human rights abuses, torture, and war crimes committed in Afghanistan and Iraq in a bygone era.

“If U.S. officials don’t care about Palestinian civilians facing atrocities using U.S. weapons, perhaps they will care a bit more about their own individual criminal liability for aiding Israel in carrying out these atrocities,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), an American non-profit organization that advocates democracy and human rights in the Middle East.

“The American people never signed up to help Israel commit war crimes against defenseless civilians with taxpayer funded bombs and artillery,” she noted.

Last month, Josh Paul, a longstanding official at the State Department’s political-military bureau resigned because of what he said was immoral US support and lethal aid for Israel’s bombings in Gaza.

According to the State Department, Israel has been designated as a Major Non-NATO Ally under U.S. law. This status provides foreign partners with certain benefits in the areas of defense trade and security cooperation and is a powerful symbol of their close relationship with the United States.

Consistent with statutory requirements, it is the policy of the United States to help Israel preserve its Qualitative Military Edge (QME), or its ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors, while sustaining minimal damages and casualties.

This requires a quadrennial report to Congress, for arms transfers that are required to be Congressionally notified, and a determination that individual arms transfers to the region will not adversely affect Israel’s QME.

Strengthening their military relationship further, the United States and Israel have signed multiple bilateral defense cooperation agreements, including: a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement (1952); a General Security of Information Agreement (1982); a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (1991); and a Status of Forces Agreement (1994).

IPS UN Bureau Report


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