Congress to investigate use of U.S. weapons in Mideast


WASHINGTON, June 14 (JTA) — The U.S. General Accounting Office will examine the use of military aid by Middle Eastern countries after a lawmaker expressed concern over Israel’s recent use of American-made F-16 warplanes to attack Palestinian targets.

However, GAO officials say the report will not draw conclusions about Israel’s actions in clashes with the Palestinians and will not evaluate which weapons can be used for what purpose.

“We will not be evaluating any specific incidents,” Tom Denomme, assistant director of GAO’s Acquisition and Sourcing Management Group — which will be issuing the report — told JTA. “We’re looking at information, not evaluation.”

The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress, and any conclusions reached in the report might contrast with the comments of Bush administration officials, who have refused to directly tackle the issue.

Denomme said the report, expected by the end of July, will “identify the body of military aid going to Middle East countries and identifying any restrictions placed on the use of those weapons.”

The investigation will look specifically at Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Authority, Denomme said, adding that the list could be expanded to include other Middle Eastern countries that receive American military aid.

In a letter to President Bush last week, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking minority member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he was concerned that Israel may be violating the Arms Export Control Act. According to the law, U.S.-made weaponry sold to foreign countries can only be used for defensive purposes.

“It appears on the face of numerous international reports that attacks on Palestinian Authority headquarters and regional police stations fall outside these terms,” said Conyers, who represents Detroit, which has the largest Arab population of any American city.

Conyers also urged Bush to launch an executive branch investigation. Secretary of State Colin Powell said earlier this month that Israel’s use of F-16s creates a “difficult situation,” and that he hopes the weapons are not used in the future.

Israel used the planes to attack a Palestinian Authority security installation in May in retaliation for a suicide bombing in the coastal city of Netanya.

The State Department has resisted calls from the Arab-American community to launch a formal investigation, saying instead that it is “monitoring” the situation.

An Israeli official in Washington said Israel is not concerned by the GAO investigation.

“We’re confident that Israel’s use of American weapons in counter-terrorism activity is in accordance with both the spirit and the letter of the relevant agreements with the United States,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “Clearly, counter-terrorism is by its very nature defensive.”

Since the investigation was announced, American Jewish leaders have sought to downplay the significance of GAO reports. However, they took the office’s work very seriously when the GAO investigated the Palestine Liberation Organization’s finances in 1995.

But the influence of the latest report will depend largely on the scope of the analysis and whether it specifically reviews Israel’s use of F-16s — which GAO officials say it will not do.

Even if it does, one Israeli official said he was not overly worried, citing the lack of concern by other governmental bodies.

“With the fact that the Pentagon and the State Department have dealt with these issues with the necessary sensitivity and understanding, I don’t think the GAO is going to take the lead on this,” the official said.

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