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Behind the Headlines: Despite Pressure, U.S. is Quiet on Israeli Use of American Weapons

The Bush administration is staying relatively quiet about Israel’s use of American-made weapons in attacks against the Palestinians, despite demands by Arab American groups to investigate the practice. Israel purchases much of its weaponry from the United States.

According to U.S. law, foreign governments are allowed to use U.S. weapons only for defensive actions or internal security.

Israel used American-made F-16s last Friday to attack Palestinian paramilitary installations in retaliation for a suicide bombing earlier in the day in Netanya.

Arab American groups have been pushing the government to review Israel’s use of American-made weapons. Arab American Institute President James Zogby said the State Department has assured him that the matter is under review, and is pressing officials to expedite it.

“It’s an outrageous acceleration,” Zogby said. “It makes the United States appear implicated because we are supplying the technology, we are supplying the weaponry.”

Arab sources say Congress may take action on the matter, but lawmakers are waiting for the State Department report before planning their next move. The administration will not say whether the matter is under formal review.

Israel — backed by allies in Washington — says the attack on security stations in the West Bank was defensive, and therefore permissible under guidelines for using U.S.-made weapons.

“The operation was a counterterrorism operation. Counterterrorism is by definition defensive,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy. “If there weren’t Palestinian attacks against Israel, we would not have been forced to respond.”

But Zogby, who just returned from the Middle East, characterized the attacks as “blind vengeance,” not retaliation.

“In the rules of war, retaliation is striking the people who struck,” he said. “The people who got struck were not the people who committed the crime.”

A senior military analyst on Capitol Hill said the United States has “bent over backwards” not to restrict Israel’s use of American weapons. He said Israel is following the letter of the law in meeting both the self-defense and internal security standards.

“Israelis are not going to dictate how they respond to a situation by what kind of equipment they can use and where it was made,” the analyst said.

Publicly, the Bush administration has been reluctant to directly tackle the issue. Speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Vice President Dick Cheney said Israel should not use F-16s against Palestinians. While the statement was highlighted by the media, it was part of Cheney’s general call on both sides to stop violence.

In addition, he clarified that Israel faced a “very delicate situation” and that he would not try to evaluate the exact decisions being made by the Israel Defense Force.

A State Department spokesman said officials have not determined that any U.S. weapons have been used in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. But he said the department has a responsibility to continually monitor the issue.

However, no imminent report is expected about Israeli use of U.S.-made weapons, he said.

Zogby said he does not believe the State Department is dodging the issue. Rather, he said, officials haven’t figured what direction to pursue.

One Jewish activist said that while Israel’s use of F-16s is legal, it may send a negative message to the world just as Israel is trying to gain support for its position in the Israeli-Palestinian violence.

“If you continue doing it, it will certainly create a problem,” said Tom Neumann, the executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “It makes people uncomfortable.”

Neumann said the use of American weapons also shifts attention away from the events that trigger the Israeli response.

“The appropriate question is what is Israel responding to and how does it handle the problem,” he said. “It doesn’t handle the problem with one hand tied around its back.”

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