US reviewing reports of civilian harm by Israel, State Dept says

By Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States is reviewing reports that Israel has harmed civilians in its war in Gaza under a set of guidelines aimed at ensuring countries receiving U.S. arms conduct military operations in line with international humanitarian law, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Tuesday.

The Biden administration has faced criticism for continuing to supply arms to Israel as allegations pile up that American-made weapons have been used in strikes that have killed or injured civilians.

"We do seek to thoroughly assess reports of civilian harm by authorized recipients of U.S.-provided defense articles around the world," Miller said at a press briefing, adding that a process under the State Department's Civilian Harm Incident Response Guidance (CHIRG) was assessing incidents in the current conflict.

CHIRG was established in August last year, just weeks before Palestinian militant group Hamas killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages during a raid into southern Israel on Oct. 7, according to Israeli figures. Israel's ensuing assault on Gaza has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 68,000, according to Gaza health officials.

The guidance sets out a process by which State Department officials investigate specific incidents where civilians may have been harmed by U.S. weapons.

Miller did not specify when the CHIRG process was initiated or say how many incidents were being reviewed. But a source familiar with the process said the department was looking at least 50 reported incidents of civilian harm.

"That process is not intended to function as a rapid response mechanism," Miller said.

"Rather, it is designed to systematically assess civilian harm incidents and develop appropriate policy responses to reduce the risk of such incidents recurring in the future and to drive partners to conduct military operations in accordance with international humanitarian law."

The process is separate from assessments the State Department sometimes undertakes to determine whether atrocities, including crimes against humanity or even genocide, have been committed in a conflict.

Reuters previously reported that Washington had set up a channel to get answers from Israel about incidents in which civilians have been killed or injured or where civilian facilities have been targeted.

To date, Washington has not said whether such incidents could trigger restrictions on U.S. assistance, or any other action, if Israel were to be found at fault.

President Joe Biden last week issued a new national security memorandum that requires countries receiving U.S. security assistance to provide assurances that they will comply with international law and not restrict aid access in conflicts.

The memorandum also requires the departments of State and Defense to report to Congress on whether U.S.-funded weapons have been used in a way inconsistent with international law or inconsistent with established best practices for preventing civilian harm.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis; Editing by Sandra Maler)