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With Pause, US Joins Other States Stopping Arms Transfers to Israel

Countries Providing Weapons Risk Complicity in Grave Abuses

moke rises after an Israeli air strike on the city of Khan Yunis, Gaza, January 8, 2024. © 2024 Abed Rahim Khatib/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo

This week, United States President Joe Biden announced that his administration has “held up” at least one shipment of 3,500 bombs and artillery shells to Israel, saying the US wouldn’t transfer certain weapons to Israel if it proceeded with an assault on the city of Rafah’s densely populated areas.

This partial pause on weapon transfers doesn’t go far enough in response to Israel’s international law violations and US rules on arms transfers. Nonetheless, Biden’s decision represents a shift from the unconditional support the US has offered Israel, particularly since Biden acknowledged that “civilians have been killed as a consequence of those bombs and other ways [Israel] goes after population centers.”

Biden should resist congressional opposition to the pause and go further. Immediately stopping all transfers of arms and military support would be consistent with the US’s international and domestic legal obligations.

Since November, Human Rights Watch has called for the suspension of arms transfers to Israel and Palestinian armed groups given the real risk that weapons would be used to commit grave abuses. Providing weapons that knowingly and significantly would contribute to unlawful attacks can make those providing them complicit in war crimes. Other human rights organizations and dozens of United Nations human rights experts have echoed with their own calls to stop transfers to Israel.

Recently, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) considered Nicaragua’s legal challenge to bar Germany’s military assistance to Israel, among other things. The ICJ declined that request based on Germany’s assertion that it was not exporting any “war weapons” for use by Israeli forces. However, the court allowed the case to move forward and left the door open for a different outcome if Germany begins providing more “war weapons,” language that two legal scholars have characterized as “might hang like a sword of Damocles over States providing military support to Israel.” 

Several of the US’s Western allies have already revised their policies of supplying weapons to Israel. In March, Canada announced it would cease future arms exports to Israel. Italy and Spain also stopped new licenses.

Legal action has also effected changes in state policies. In the Netherlands, a lawsuit forced the government to pause sales of F-35 fighter jet parts. In Germany, civil society groups filed a similar suit seeking to stop weapon sales.

Mounting public and legal pressure is making it harder for governments such as the United KingdomGermanyFrance, and Denmark to continue selling arms to Israel. Biden’s shift in tone will add to the pressure. In the face of continuing atrocities, “full-blown famine” in northern Gaza, and Israel’s obstruction of aid for Gaza, these countries need to stop sending weapons now.

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