Van Hollen concerned over upcoming report on weapons for Israel

Sen. Chris Van Hollen said Wednesday he is concerned about the way the Biden administration is compiling a report into whether Israel is eligible for U.S. weapons.

Background: Under President Joe Biden’s National Security Memorandum-20, which Van Hollen (D-Md.) championed, the administration must submit a report to Congress by May 8 about whether Israel and other countries that receive U.S. military aid are complying with international law and adhering to best practices when it comes to avoiding civilian casualties.

Van Hollen is among the lawmakers who have pushed Biden to be harder on Israel over how it is conducting its military campaign in Gaza. He is calling on the administration to avoid steering the report to favor Israel and cited recent reporting by Reuters that some State Department officials are concerned over Israel’s conduct.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with folks in the administration, really urging them to make sure that this report is credible, that it’s seen to be based on facts and law, and not based on what they wish it would be — or that it not be driven by policy outcomes that they might not want to take,” Van Hollen said.

“What I’ve said to them is God help us if this report somehow says that the delivery of humanitarian assistance has been compliant with international standards — God help us because anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that’s just not true,” he added.

Dissenting views: Reuters reported last week that at least seven State Department bureaus had submitted their contributions to an initial “options memo” to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. That memo highlighted internal divisions within the State Department over whether Israel is complying with the law.

Reuters reported that a joint submission from four bureaus at the State Department raised “serious concern over non-compliance” with international humanitarian law during Israel’s prosecution of the Gaza war.

The joint submission came from the bureaus of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; Population, Refugees and Migration; Global Criminal Justice and International Organization Affairs.

However, another submission Reuters reviewed, from the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, warned Blinken that suspending U.S. weapons would limit Israel’s ability to meet potential threats outside its airspace and require Washington to reevaluate “all ongoing and future sales to other countries in the region.” That bureau deals with U.S. military assistance and arms transfers.

Leading the report: Van Hollen said he does not like that the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs is leading the forthcoming report.

“I’m concerned that the bureaus at the Department of State that have the greatest expertise — Human Rights — are not the ones that are writing that section of the report, and the entity at State that has the most experience in the delivery of humanitarian assistance is not writing that section of the report,” Van Hollen told a small group of reporters.

Van Hollen also said the State Department’s legal arm seems to be cut out of the process. He called it “very concerning” that State’s lawyers “are not being directly asked, at least they weren’t, about what their legal opinion was, like a definitive legal opinion.”