Israeli soldier grimaces while carrying 155mm artillery shell

An Israeli soldier grimaces under the weight of a 155mm artillery shell of the type provided in bulk by the United States in the Upper Galiliee region of northern Israel on October 18, 2023.

(Photo: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden Memo on US Arms Transfers Called 'Too Little Too Late'

"If existing restrictions were enforced, the U.S. would have firmly halted all offensive military support for Israel rather than continuing to fuel its devastating war," said one group.

As U.S. arms continue to fuel Israel's genocidal war on Gaza, critics responded skeptically on Friday to a memo from President Joe Biden requiring human rights assurances from governments receiving American weapons, noting that the White House issued—and ignored—a similar directive last year.

Biden's memo—which is modeled on an amendment proposed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)—"requires the secretary of state to obtain certain credible and reliable written assurances from foreign governments receiving defense articles... and requires the secretaries of state and defense to provide periodic congressional reports to enable meaningful oversight."

"The question has always been what the administration is willing to do in practice, not in theory."

The White House said the policy is meant to "prevent arms transfers that risk facilitating or otherwise contributing to violations of human rights or international humanitarian law" and "strengthen ally and partner capacity to respect their obligations under international law and reduce the risk of civilian harm."

Referring to the far-right administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Van Hollen said that "this new policy will help hold all recipients of U.S. weapons—including the Netanyahu government—more accountable. It's a huge step forward in shining a light on the use of U.S. taxpayer dollars, and will have a lasting impact for years to come."

Skeptics, however, noted the yawning chasm between U.S. policy and practice. David Sirota, founder of the investigative news site The Lever, said on social media that "this isn't new. This is a press release designed to distract from basically the same directive [Biden] issued less than a year ago, which he just totally ignored."

Biden's February 2023 memo states that "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... genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949... 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."

The International Court of Justice and a federal judge in California have found that Israel is "plausibly" committing genocide in Gaza. At least hundreds of international legal and genocide scholars, including numerous Israelis, have said Israel's onslaught—which has caused more than 100,000 casualties and has displaced around 90% of Gaza's 2.3 million people—is genocidal.

Gazans and human rights observers have documented a wide range of potential Israeli war crimes, including the deliberate withholding of lifesaving humanitarian aid; indiscriminate killing; bombing of vital civilian infrastructure including shelters, hospitals, and schools; deliberate targeting of media, medical, and humanitarian workers; and the execution of civilians including elders, men, women, and children.

At least 12,150 children have been killed by Israeli bombs and bullets, according to Palestinian officials.

"For civilians in Gaza, where U.S. arms continue to cause catastrophic harm, this memo is too little too late," Annie Shiel, the U.S. advocacy director at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said of Biden's new directive. "The Biden administration needs to do what it should have months ago: End U.S. complicity in devastating harm and leverage assistance to deescalate and protect civilians."

Biden has acknowledged and implored Israel to stop its "indiscriminate bombing" of Gaza, which on Thursday he called "over the top."

However, the Biden administration has requested $14.3 billion in additional U.S. military aid for Israel atop the nearly $4 billion the apartheid state already receives from Washintgon each year. Biden has also twice bypassed Congress in order to expedite "emergency" armed aid to Israel.

Since the passage of the Foreign Assitance Act of 1961, and later the Leahy Laws, the U.S. government has been statutorily prohibited from providing assistance to foreign security forces that commit gross human rights violations. However, this has not stopped Washington from supporting some of the world's worst human rights violators—including the perpetrators of genocides in Paraguay, Guatemala, Bangladesh, East Timor, Kurdistan, and Gaza—since these laws were enacted.

Responding to Biden's new memo and its requirement of written human rights pledges, Shiel contended that "assurances like this would not be necessary if the U.S. was already following its own laws and policies."

"Where it's clear U.S. weapons are contributing to violations or blocking humanitarian aid, U.S. law and policy says arms transfers can't continue—full stop," she said.

Despite massive U.S. military aid—which has totaled more than $150 billion since Israel was established in 1948 amid the ethnic cleansing of Palestine's Arabs—Biden administration officials have claimed that they have little leverage over the Israeli government.

"Assurances like this would not be necessary if the U.S. was already following its own laws and policies."

While U.S. officials including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argue that conditions on arms transfers should not apply to Israel, human rights defenders assert that the Biden administration must go beyond mere words to stop the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

"The United States must press Israel for a cease-fire," Center for International Policy senior fellow Melvin A. Goodman wrote for CounterPunch Friday.

"The only way to pressure Israel would be to place genuine conditions on U.S. arms transfers or to withhold the lethal systems that only Washington provides," he added.

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