US Must Monitor Use of US Weapons in Gaza

January 7, 2009

Amnesty International has called on the US State Department to suspend all transfers of military weaponry and equipment to Israel until it conducts an investigation into whether US weapons were used in human rights violations.  Israel has been using F16’s, Apache helicopters, gunboats and bunker buster bombs in a week-long series of devastating attacks on the Gaza Strip.

Israel Gaza Conflict Enters Twelfth Day. (c) Getty Images
Israel Gaza Conflict Enters Twelfth Day. (c) Getty Images

Monitoring of the use of American-made weaponry is not unprecedented.  The State Department monitored the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories during the second intifada after Israel dropped a 2,000 pound bomb from an F-16 on an apartment building killing not only the Hamas target Saleh Shahadeh, but also 14 civilians, including 9 of his children in 2002.

The U.S. Arms Export Act of 1976 was passed to help guarantee that US made weapons would only be used for legitimate self-defense reasons and not for violations of internationally recognized human rights.  The act requires the State Department to report to Congress when there is a ”substantial violation” of the law.

An incident similar to the 2002 case of Saleh Shahadeh happened during the latest series of attacks on the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of a well-known Hamas leader, Nizar Rayan, killing him along with over a dozen members of his family, including most of his children.  Additionally, civilian residential homes and other civilian buildings, including a university, police compounds, schools and fire stations have been targeted by Israeli air strikes.

While it’s unclear whether any US weapons have been directly used by Israeli security forces for human rights violations in Gaza, given the types of weapons and attacks Israel security forces have recently used and the large amount of civilian casualties, there is a strong likelihood that US weapons could be used in such violations.

According to the US government’s most recent annual report to the US Congress on US arms sales, in 2007 alone, the US approved or delivered millions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition to Israel, including items in the category of rockets, bombs and missiles.  In the past, the US has also sold Israel F-16s, attack helicopters, and cluster munitions.   A Jerusalem Post article outlines the use of GBU-39 ‘bunker buster’ bombs in this latest military operation against the Gaza Strip that were just sold to Israel by the US this past September.

Although it is widely understood and accepted that Israel has the right and duty to protect its citizens, it is still obligated to do so respecting international humanitarian and human rights laws.  They must use the least intrusive means available, respecting proportion, necessity and distinction (non-combatant vs. combatant).  Israel has failed to do this, using extraordinarily powerful weapons against the Gaza Strip such as the one ton bomb on a home to kill one member of Hamas.  The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated locales on earth where 1.5 million people inhabitant a strip 4-7 miles wide and 25 miles long.  Air strikes with ‘smart bombs’ no matter how precise have resulted in a shockingly large number of civilian deaths; sometimes entire families at the same time.

The United States is obligated to enforce the law, regardless of who the offending party may be.  We are a nation based on ‘rule of law’.  If we suspect our weapons are being used in attacks that are indiscriminately killing civilians, we must act.

These concerns were raised in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last Friday by Amnesty International.  Until we can be certain that the US Arms Export Act is not being violated, we must suspend all transfers of weapons and immediately open an investigation.