© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Israeli soldiers from the artillery unit store tank shells.
A State Department report on Israel’s military activity frustrated lawmakers and international human rights organizations. Leo Correa/AP

The State Department Won’t Commit to Ever Producing a Conclusive Report on Israel’s Conduct

Government officials did not determine whether Israel was violating U.S. or international law due to, in part, a lack of personnel on the ground in Gaza — which the government doesn’t plan to put in place.

The State Department said a lack of personnel on the ground in Gaza is “one of the reasons” its recent report on whether Israel used United States weapons in violation of U.S. and international law was inconclusive.

But the Biden administration will not commit to an independent investigation — raising questions about whether the United States will ever have definitive findings on how its military aid is used abroad.

The State Department reiterated to NOTUS that it would not be putting personnel on the ground in Gaza, a policy announced by Biden during his State of the Union speech in March. It would not comment on whether it would ever seek a conclusive answer on how American weapons are being used.

The National Security Memorandum report on Israel, published earlier this month, frustrated lawmakers and international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, which has staff in Gaza.

The State Department report found it was “reasonable to assess” that supplied U.S. weapons have been used by Israel “in instances inconsistent with its international humanitarian law obligations,” but would not say definitively that these actions were a pattern by Israel.

“The fact that we don’t have people on the ground in Gaza is one of the reasons why,” Vedant Patel, the deputy spokesperson for the State Department, said in response to NOTUS’ inquiry at a press briefing last week.

The report supports the administration continuing to provide U.S. military aid to Israel, despite intense pressure from some lawmakers and parts of the U.S. public to set more limits on aid. Those calls may grow louder this week after an International Criminal Court prosecutor requested arrest warrants for both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of Hamas for war crimes.

Lawmakers most critical of the report are not calling for the State Department to put Americans on the ground in Gaza.

Rather, Sen. Chris Van Hollen said the administration should trust the international humanitarian groups conducting investigations, saying that the United States has done so in the past. The State Department relies on humanitarian organizations and NGOs, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to develop its assessments of incidents in Gaza.

“I don’t think it’s realistic for the United States to have personnel on the ground right now in Gaza,” he said. “But there are still independent sources of information. The Amnesty report, for example, is based on an on-the-ground analysis.”

Amnesty International submitted its own research to the State Department specifically to support the development of the government report. Its research concluded that “the government of Israel is using US-made weapons in violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.”

Amnesty International has one staff member in Gaza, kept anonymous for safety, supported by “a whole team of people contributing,” according to its leadership.

“Amid the daily horror I’m living through and documenting, perhaps the only sliver of good news was the survival of my son, his wife and their two children,” the Amnesty International staff member said in a cable to the organization.

When asked about the State Department’s confidence in these organizations, Patel said he wouldn’t characterize the department’s expectations of the broad coalition or specific organizations as “accurate or confident or not.”

Patel also reiterated the complex nature of the conflict, something clearly outlined in the report.

“We are dealing with a very dense and complex warfare setting and a belligerent that has co-located itself with civilians and civilian infrastructure,” he said.

Along with nongovernment organizations, media organizations and others, assessments the department makes come from working “collaboratively with our embassies or consulates in countries where we have conflicts,” he said.

Not only is Gaza an active war zone, but there are mounting allegations that Israel is targeting humanitarian workers, journalists and investigators trying to document what is happening in the conflict. Scott Paul, an associate director at Oxfam America, told reporters that part of the report’s lack of assessment is “because they don’t want to be even more complicit in deconfliction failures.”

Deconfliction, civilian workers protected by the Geneva Conventions coordinating with militaries where they can go and when has been a recurring issue for the Israeli military.

The U.N. has said that 245 aid workers have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7. According to Human Rights Watch, one of the organizations that contributed information to the State Department’s report, continued attacks and the death toll are “having a chilling effect on efforts to provide lifesaving aid in Gaza.”

John T. Seward is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.