On August 8, spokesman Richard Boucher treated the State Department press
corps to an exacting lesson in the art of diplomatic hair-splitting. At
issue was Israel's use of US-manufactured helicopter gunships to attack
Palestinian targets in the West Bank.
Asked a reporter, "How does this Department react to the increasing or
repeated use of.US-supplied helicopters, [and the] very heavy shelling from
helicopters overnight? I believe that we heard the Secretary say that he
didn't think this was going to continue to be a problem. Correct me if I'm
wrong, and tell me if it's still a problem."
"I think you are wrong," Boucher replied. "I think that was F-16s." The US
does raise its concerns about helicopter attacks, he continued, but "there
has been no determination regarding the legal implications of the use of US
weaponry." The statement unleashed a volley of follow-up questions,
unusually pointed ones for the normally docile Washington media. Boucher's
reference to "legal implications" raised the specter of the Arms Export
The Arms Export Control Act requires the State Department to monitor arms
sales to foreign countries to make sure they're only being used for purposes
of "internal security" and "legitimate self-defense." In May, after Israel
rocketed PA installations from US-made F-16 warplanes, Congressman John
Conyers (D-MI) ordered a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation, and
wrote an open letter to the White House requesting that the State Department
look into it as well. The F-16s hit targets well outside Israel's recognized
borders, the Conyers letter noted, and killed and injured civilians. Were
they really acts of legitimate self-defense? Conyers has received no
response from the Bush administration beyond a form letter acknowledging
receipt of his request.
Last week, the State Department condemned an Israeli aerial assault on an
alleged Hamas headquarters which killed eight people, including two young
boys. State Department spokesmen have expressed dismay at Israel's openly
declared policy of "targeted killings"-or assassinations of Palestinian
militants-before, but the unusually strong language of last week's
denunciation drew wide comment. Yesterday reporters took the opportunity to
pin the administration down-sort of-on what the US could do to stop the
"If you are condemning the targeted killings [done] with US equipment,"
another reporter questioned Boucher, "then why haven't you made a
determination that they are in violation of the Arms Export Control Act?"
"Because the two things are not the same," said Boucher. How's that? "One is
a legal determination, and the other is a political judgment. We do not
believe that targeted killings [are] a good policy. That is not the same as
making legal determination. We are very aware of our legal responsibility. We
follow the events on the ground very closely. But at this point, we haven't
made a determination because we don't feel that that portion of our law has
So, the intrepid journalist pressed on, "what would be facts that would
justify determination? They used weapons, you have criticized the use of
those weapons in the targeted killings. What more facts would you need?"
Boucher halted the embarrassing line of questioning with an apparent joke.
"I am not going to get engaged in a process of offering a prescription for
what people can do to violate our law." Several reporters chuckled, and the
questioner protested that he hadn't asked for a prescription. Boucher
rejoined: "Well, that is what you are asking: List five things the Israelis
could do that would violate our law with regard to weapons transfers. I am
not going to do that."
After last week's strong statement against the assassination policy,
pro-Israeli commentators accused the State Department of being controlled by
biased Arabists. In light of Vice President Dick Cheney's remark over the
weekend that "targeted killings" were "justifiable," the media speculated
about serious splits within the Bush White House over the ongoing low-level
war between Palestinians and Israel's occupying army. Boucher's comments
should put that talk to rest.
Numerous international investigations, including a January 2001 report from
the National Lawyers Guild, have concluded that Israel's excessive force-in
which category helicopter and F-16 attacks certainly qualify-against
Palestinians cannot be justified as self-defense. At least, the provisions
of the Arms Export Control Act should be invoked to stop future arms sales
to Israel. But yesterday's doublespeak at the State Department indicates
that the Bush administration will continue to sweep its own responsibility
for Israel's harsh occupation of Palestinian lands under the rug.
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report (www.merip.org), a publication
of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).