December 06, 2023

Warren, Kaine, Sanders, Merkley, Heinrich Call for Oversight of Use of U.S.-Origin Weapons by Israel in War Against Hamas

“As weapons transfers to Israel accelerate, we seek information on the accountability and oversight measures that ensure any use of U.S. weapons is in accordance with U.S. policy and international law.”

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. – Following reports that Israel is using explosive weapons against civilian targets, causing widespread harm, U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to President Joe Biden, calling for closer oversight of Israel’s use of U.S. weapons to ensure the weapons will not be used to cause preventable civilian harm. In the letter, the lawmakers also reiterated their belief that Israel has a right to defend itself following Hamas’s terrorist attacks on October 7th.

“Israel is a U.S. partner, and we must ensure accountability for the use of U.S. weapons we provided to our ally,”  said the lawmakers. “Your administration must ensure that existing guidance and standards are being used to evaluate the reports of Israel using U.S. weapons in attacks that harm civilians in order to more rigorously protect civilian safety during Israel’s operations in Gaza.”

In the weeks since Hamas’s terrorist attack on October 7th, Israel’s retaliatory strikes have killed over 15,000 Palestinians, most of which were civilians. The subsequent attacks have hit several areas where large numbers of civilian Palestinians have fled to, including a U.N. created refugee camp that has quickly become a dense urban area and “safe zones” in Southern Gaza where Israel had previously told Palestinians to move toward. In the letter, the lawmakers expressed concern “that strikes on civilian infrastructure have not been proportional, particularly given the predictable harm to civilians.”

In order to mitigate civilian harm, the Department of Defense (DoD) and State Department established new accountability measures in 2022 and 2023, including the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP) and Civilian Harm Incident Response Guidance (CHIRG). It has not been made clear, however, how these measures will be applied to ensure that Israel is doing everything it can to prevent civilian harm while using U.S.-origin weapons. 

“The risk of violating international law and our own standards increases as Israel uses explosive weapons in densely populated areas,” said the lawmakers. “These gaps in protections appear to be inconsistent with U.S. international commitments to refrain from the use of explosive weapons in populated civilian areas.” 

Following President Biden’s request for approval of $14.3 billion in military aid to Israel, the lawmakers are calling for increased accountability and oversight measures to ensure any use of U.S. weapons, including 155mm shells, is in accordance with U.S. policy and international law.

Senator Warren has led the call to hold the U.S. military accountable for harm to innocent civilians: 

  • In September 2023, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on the Department of Defense (DoD) to improve investigations into civilian harm by collaborating with civil society organizations on the ground.
  • In July 2023, Senator Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and U.S. Representative Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, expressing concerns that a recent May 2023 U.S. airstrike in Syria may have killed a civilian.
  • In December 2022, Senator Warren and U.S. Representative Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, raising concerns that the Department of Defense’s (DoD) September 2022 report to Congress on civilian casualties appears to undercount civilian casualties from U.S. military operations and that DoD is not exercising its authority to make amends to civilian victims and survivors.
  • In December 2022, Senator Warren announced priorities that she secured in the FY 2023 NDAA, including fundamentally reforming DoD's approach to preventing civilian harm by creating a Civilian Protection Center of Excellence to serve as a focal point for civilian casualty, providing s $25 million in dedicated resources to implement the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Plan being developed by DoD and reforms prescribed in the NDAA, and enhancing annual reporting on civilian harm. 
  • In September 2022, Senators Warren, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent letters to DoD and the Department of State, calling on the Departments to thoroughly investigate how U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen may have led to civilian harm and analyze to the effectiveness of civilian harm reduction efforts by the Saudi and Emirati governments
  • In August 2022, DoD released its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan that was responsive to Senator Warren’s numerous proposals and calls for DoD to prioritize civilian harm prevention. 
  • In March 2022, Senator Warren and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent a letter to the Pentagon calling on it to open investigations into instances of civilian harm from U.S. military operations in Yemen, after reports of dozens of deaths.
  • In April 2022, Senator Warren and Representatives Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Jason Crow (D-Colo.), Jacobs and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) announced two pieces of bicameral legislation that would overhaul the prevention, mitigation, reporting, and transparency of civilian harm caused by U.S. military operations, the Department of Defense Civilian Harm Transparency Act and the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act.
  • In February 2022, Senator Warren secured a commitment from LTG Michael Kurilla, nominee to be General and Commander of United States Central Command, to prioritize reforms to mitigate civilian casualties.
  • In January 2022, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna led almost 50 of their colleagues in a letter calling on President Biden to overhaul U.S. counterterrorism policy after U.S. drone strikes have killed thousands of innocent civilians.
  • In January 2022, Senators Warren and Murphy and Representative Khanna released a statement in support of DoD’s directive to prevent civilian deaths
  • In November 2021, Senator Warren sent a letter to Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Chairman of SASC, requesting that the Committee launch a formal inquiry to review the findings and implications of a New York Times report detailing how the U.S. military hid an airstrike in Baghuz, Syria that killed dozens of civilians.
  • Following the August 29, 2021, unmanned airstrike that killed ten civilians in Afghanistan, Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna sent a letter to Secretary Austin to use the tragedy of civilian harm to look into the Pentagon’s history of accidentally targeting innocent civilians and significantly under-investigating and undercounting civilian casualties. 
  • In July 2021, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna sent a letter urging Secretary Austin to review why significant undercounts of civilian casualties persist and why DoD made zero ex gratia payments to grieving civilians last year despite authorization and funding from Congress.
  • In June 2020, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna introduced the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act, bicameral legislation that would enhance reporting on civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations, improve investigations into civilian casualties, and strengthen resources for the Department's policies and practices relating to civilian casualty prevention and responses.