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U.S. investigates Israeli airstrikes for mass civilian casualties following alleged use of white phosphorus

The United States Department of State is actively investigating a series of Israeli airstrikes that have resulted in significant civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip, along with allegations concerning the use of white phosphorus in Lebanon. This inquiry is part of a broader examination into whether Israel, one of America’s most steadfast allies, has engaged in the misuse of American-manufactured bombs and missiles in a manner that has led to civilian deaths. This scrutiny comes amidst a complex geopolitical landscape, where the U.S.’s unwavering support for Israel is increasingly questioned against the backdrop of mounting civilian tolls and international outcry.

At the heart of the investigation is an October 31 airstrike targeting the Jabalia refugee camp, a densely populated area near Gaza City. This attack, which resulted in the deaths of over 125 people, is suspected of having utilized a 2,000-pound bomb supplied by the United States. The United Nations Human Rights Office has raised concerns that the high civilian casualty rate from this strike may amount to a war crime, highlighting the grave humanitarian implications of such military actions.

Further complicating the situation is the potential use of white phosphorus by Israeli forces in Lebanon in mid-October. White phosphorus is an incendiary material that, while permissible under specific wartime conditions for creating smoke screens or signaling, is internationally banned for use against civilian populations due to its capacity to cause severe and often fatal burns. Reports from Lebanon’s state-run news agency and subsequent complaints to the United Nations have brought this issue to the forefront of international attention, prompting U.S. officials to include these allegations in their broader investigation.

The State Department’s investigations are conducted under a newly established process aimed at providing the U.S. government with enhanced mechanisms to restrict military aid to nations found to be misusing American weapons. This process reflects growing concerns within the Biden administration and among some members of Congress about the ethical implications of U.S. arms being used in operations resulting in high civilian casualties. The outcome of these investigations could lead to recommendations for cutting off military aid to Israel, imposing restrictions on the use of supplied weapons, or issuing new guidelines for their employment in conflict zones.

This investigative effort occurs against a backdrop of significant political and social debate within the United States regarding its relationship with Israel. The Biden administration, which has so far resisted imposing conditions on arms transfers to Israel, finds itself at a crossroads as it faces increasing calls for action in light of the ongoing conflict. The military campaign in Gaza, characterized by extensive Israeli bombardments, has led to more than 28,000 deaths, predominantly among women and children, according to Palestinian health authorities. These figures have sparked a backlash from progressive segments of the American electorate, who are critical of the Biden administration’s staunch support for Israel amidst the escalating humanitarian crisis.

The administration’s stance on the issue is further complicated by the upcoming presidential election, with President Biden’s unwavering support for Israel potentially alienating key voter demographics. Conversely, any perceived weakening of support for Israel could expose Biden to criticism from opponents who argue that such a move amounts to abandoning a key ally during a critical period.

As these investigations proceed, the findings could have profound implications for U.S.-Israel relations, potentially influencing the debate over American military aid to Israel. With the Biden administration recently issuing a directive requiring recipient countries to provide assurances of compliance with international humanitarian and human rights laws, the outcome of the State Department’s inquiry may serve as a pivotal moment in shaping the future of U.S. foreign policy and its commitment to upholding international norms in conflict situations.

Dr Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence said of the allegations: “The investigations into the use of heavy weaponry in densely populated areas and the deployment of substances like white phosphorus in conflict zones underscore a critical and often overlooked aspect of modern warfare: the profound and lasting impact on civilian lives and infrastructure. As we’ve seen in numerous conflicts around the world, the repercussions of such military actions extend far beyond the immediate aftermath, affecting generations through psychological trauma, physical injuries, and the destabilization of entire communities. It is imperative that international actors, including those supplying military aid, hold accountable any and all parties that violate the principles of international humanitarian law. Ensuring transparency, rigorous investigation, and, where necessary, reevaluation of military aid policies are essential steps towards mitigating the harm inflicted on civilians in conflict settings.”