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The U.S. is investigating Israel's use of American weapons

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Biden administration has been raising concerns with Israel about the high civilian death toll in Gaza. And now officials are looking into several of the deadliest airstrikes to see if Israel is misusing American weapons. But the administration has been reluctant to use its military aid as leverage. NPR's Michele Kelemen is here to explain all this. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: First of all, this is an official investigation. Who's running it?

KELEMEN: Yeah, well, the State Department has something called the Civilian Harm Incident Response Guidelines, which is kind of an internal reporting system for when U.S. weapons are used in high-casualty attacks. Here's how State Department spokesman Matthew Miller describes it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW MILLER: That process is not intended to function as a rapid response mechanism. Rather, it is designed to systematically assess civilian harm incidents and develop appropriate policy responses to reduce the risk of such incidents occurring in the future and to drive partners to conduct military operations in accordance with international humanitarian law.

KELEMEN: Now, he wouldn't speak to specific incidents that are part of this formal review, but we do know that the State Department has been looking into the alleged use of white phosphorus in Lebanon, and that it's been looking into some of the deadliest attacks in Gaza. The Wall Street Journal says that includes a 2,000-pound bomb dropped on a refugee camp last October there.

KELLY: So here's my question. If the State Department determines that Israel has in fact misused American weapons, are there consequences for Israel?

KELEMEN: Well, there could be aid cutoffs. But, you know, you heard Miller say that this is not a rapid response mechanism, so I would not expect the U.S. to come to any quick conclusions about that or cut off aid. And that worries Josh Paul. He quit the State Department last year because of the war in Gaza. He had worked on, you know, military aid packages, including those to Israel. Take a listen to how he responded to the news that the U.S. is looking into some of these incidents.

JOSH PAUL: The time for action is now. It is not in six months or a year from now when we are looking at a new tranche of requests from Israel. What we need is to ensure that U.S. weapons are not being used to kill thousands of civilians. And this is a question we already know the answer to. So I would say, you know, while it is good that the department is applying some of its tools to look at these questions, the answers are obvious and the time for action is now.

KELEMEN: And so far, Paul says, the Biden administration has not put any real conditions on military aid to Israel.

KELLY: And why not?

KELEMEN: You know, the U.S. is focused now on getting another pause in the fighting in exchange for the release of hostages held by Hamas. And the argument that I often hear over here at the State Department is that the pressure should be on Hamas, not on Israel right now. U.S. officials also often say that Hamas has been using civilians as human shields, and that's one of the reasons why there is such a high civilian death toll in Gaza. Now, diplomats do raise specific cases directly with Israeli authorities, and they do press Israelis to limit civilian casualties. But they don't seem to want to use aid as leverage with Israel at this point.

KELLY: What about members of Congress? Because we have been hearing voices over on Capitol Hill pushing back against the Biden administration on this.

KELEMEN: Well, certainly some Democrats have. Chris Van Hollen, who's from Maryland, says that Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Israel has mostly ignored U.S. calls to protect civilians in Gaza. And he does think it's time for the U.S. to do something. The next test, Mary Louise, is what happens in Rafah, near Gaza's border with Egypt. Israel says there are few Hamas battalions there, but there's also more than a million Palestinian sheltering in Rafah. And the Biden administration has told Israel that it needs a real plan to protect civilians before any ground offensive. So far, U.S. officials say there's no credible plan.

KELLY: That is NPR's Michele Kelemen reporting from the State Department. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAN OMARI AND ANNA WISE SONG, "MOVE TOO FAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.