Lloyd Austin and Yoav Gallant shake hands

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (left) shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (right) in Brussels on June 15, 2023.

(Photo: Elad Malcha/Israeli Defense Ministry)

Rights Groups Tell Pentagon Chief to Withhold Military Aid to Israel

"To protect civilians in Gaza... administration rhetoric on the protection of civilians must be backed by action and leverage."

Citing the "staggering civilian death and destruction" caused by Israel's 76-day war on Gaza, a group of 14 humanitarian organizations on Wednesday urged Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to withhold U.S. military aid to Israel and take other steps to protect Palestinian noncombatants.

In a letter to Austin, the groups—Airwars, Amnesty International USA, Anera, Center for Civilians in Conflict, Humanity & Inclusion, Human Rights Watch, InterAction, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders USA, Norwegian Refugee Council USA, Oxfam America, PAX, Refugees International, Save the Children U.S., and Zomia Cente—asserted that the Pentagon's response to Israel's obliteration of Gaza "has failed to live up to and... actively undermined" the Defense Department's Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP).

"Israel's operations... continue to cause devastating levels of civilian harm and destruction and inhibit the provision of life-saving humanitarian aid—all using U.S. support."

Published last year, CHMR-AP lays out a series of policy steps aimed at preventing and responding to the death and injury of noncombatants. The plan was widely welcomed, but was also met with skepticism by critics who noted that the U.S. military has killed more foreign civilians than any other armed force in the world since the end of World War II, including hundreds of thousands of noncombatants during the ongoing global War on Terror.

"Israel's operations... continue to cause devastating levels of civilian harm and destruction and inhibit the provision of life-saving humanitarian aid—all using U.S. support. The result is civilian harm at a massive scale amidst a humanitarian crisis," the letter notes. "To protect civilians in Gaza and live up to the aspirations of the CHMR-AP, administration rhetoric on the protection of civilians must be backed by action and leverage."

The groups urge Austin to:

  • Categorically oppose the targeting of civilians and civilian objects, indiscriminate attacks that fail to distinguish between civilian and military objects, and attacks that cause disproportionate civilian harm;
  • Withhold U.S. assistance, in accordance with U.S. law and policy, that would facilitate violations of international humanitarian law;
  • Refrain from transferring explosive weapons to Israel for use in Gaza and emphasize adherence to U.S. commitments made on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas; and
  • Reject forcible displacement and the use of so-called "safe zones."

"In recent remarks, President [Joe] Biden... stated that Israel is engaging in 'indiscriminate bombing.' Such practices clearly violate
international humanitarian law principles that require militaries to distinguish between civilians and combatants and prohibit attacks that cause disproportionate harm to civilians and civilian objects," the letter states. "The U.S. government must unequivocally condemn indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilians or civilian objects in Gaza."

While peace activists and progressive U.S. lawmakers have pushed for an immediate Gaza cease-fire, Biden has reaffirmed his "unwavering" support for Israel. Biden is seeking $14.3 billion in additional U.S. military aid for Israel atop the nearly $4 billion it receives each year from Washington. The president has also come under fire for asking Congress to lift most of the restrictions on Israel's access to a stockpile of U.S.-supplied weapons.

Speaking earlier this week in Tel Aviv, Austin, while underscoring U.S. support for Israel's war against Hamas, said that "protecting Palestinian civilians in Gaza is both a moral duty and a strategic imperative."

"So we will continue to stand up for Israel's bedrock right to defend itself and we will also continue to urge the protection of civilians during conflict and to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza," he added.

The Palestinian death toll from Israel's war on Gaza topped 20,000 on Wednesday, with more than 6,000 women and 8,000 children among the dead. Over 50,000 other Gazans have been wounded, and thousands are missing and feared buried beneath the rubble of bombed-out buildings. More than 1.9 million of Gaza's 2.3 million people have also been forcibly displaced.

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