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State Department weighing "new information" from Israel in determining whether IDF unit violated U.S. law

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The State Department is evaluating "new information" provided by the Israeli government about the status of an Israeli military unit deemed to have committed gross violations of human rights in the West Bank before the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks, according to a letter sent to House Speaker Mike Johnson by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The information comes as Blinken weighs whether to recommend suspending U.S. aid to the unit under a federal measure known as the Leahy Law. The law prevents the U.S. from providing weapons or funds for military assistance to groups when there is credible information indicating the groups have violated human rights.

The potential move, now under intense public scrutiny as the Biden administration comes under growing pressure to hold Israel accountable on international human rights standards, would be unprecedented in the decades-long security partnership between the U.S. and Israel. 

But in the undated letter, which was obtained and authenticated by CBS News, Blinken assures Johnson that the broader determinations he has made in accordance with the Leahy Law "will not delay the delivery of any U.S. assistance," and Israel would "receive the full amount appropriated by Congress." According to a source with knowledge of the letter, Johnson had demanded assurance from Blinken before he would put a long-delayed foreign aid package to a vote on the House floor. Blinken's letter was delivered to Johnson last Saturday, the day the vote was to take place.

Blinken specified in the letter that he had made determinations on three military units of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), as well as two civilian authority units that were implicated in incidents of gross human rights violations against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. None of the incidents that were investigated involved Israel's operations against Hamas in Gaza or Iran or its proxies, and all of them predated the Oct. 7 attacks, the letter said. 

Two of the IDF battalions were "credibly implicated" in gross human rights violations, Blinken said, but the Israeli government had already conducted "effective remediation" of both. This means that U.S. security assistance can continue to flow to those and the civilian authority units. 

In the case of the third IDF unit, Blinken said, there had not been "effective remediation to date," though the Israeli government acknowledged the group had engaged in "conduct inconsistent with IDF rules" and was transferred to the Golan Heights from the West Bank in 2022.

"The Israeli government has presented new information regarding the status of the unit and we will engage on identifying a path to effective remediation for this unit," Blinken wrote, without specifying whether a suspension of U.S. aid could ultimately be warranted.

CBS News has previously reported that one of the battalions found to be in violation was the Netzah Yehuda unit, which has been implicated in the death of an 80-year-old Palestinian American in 2022.

Officials familiar with the process said the U.S. and Israel have in place a formal agreement that requires the U.S. to consult with the Israeli government before reaching a conclusion under the Foreign Assistance Act, under which the Leahy law falls. That consultation regarding the third military unit is taking place now, they said.

The U.S. has been separately reviewing whether the IDF and Israeli government are in compliance with U.S. and international humanitarian law in its conflict with Hamas. 

In February, President Biden issued a new national security memorandum, known as NSM20. It ordered a State Department review of all countries receiving U.S. military aid in order to certify whether they're in compliance with U.S. and international humanitarian law. This came in response to pressure by Senate Democrats, including Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who has publicly accused Israel of violating the Foreign Assistance Act and other U.S. laws in that current conflict. 

"Our credibility is on the line, and I am very concerned by reports that the Administration is not applying our standards in a consistent manner," Van Hollen said in a statement Friday. Congress is expected to receive those results by May 8.

In his letter to Johnson, Blinken stressed that the department had made no additional determinations under the Leahy Law. 

"I also want to emphasize that, contrary to some media reports, no other Leahy determinations regarding Israel have been made," he wrote. 

Blinken first said last Friday at a G7 press conference in Capri, Italy, that he had made "determinations" related to possible Leahy Law violations. "[Y]ou can expect to see them in the days ahead," he said at the time.  

The idea that the U.S. could take such a punitive measure triggered fierce condemnation from Israeli officials in what American sources have said was a surprisingly heated backlash.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Sunday called the possible penalty "the height of absurdity; a moral low." Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz said it would set a "dangerous precedent."

Both Gantz and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant raised the matter in phone calls with Blinken last Sunday. 

Blinken's comments also came just before a crucial House vote on a $95 billion supplemental aid package with funds for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel that had languished in Congress for more than six months amid opposition from right-wing lawmakers.

"Following Secretary Blinken's comments, the Speaker demanded an explanation from the Administration and assurances regarding the timely delivery of the military aid to Israel which the House passed Saturday," a spokesperson for Johnson's office said in a statement.

Earlier this week Johnson said in a radio interview that before the bill was brought to the House he had demanded — and received — similar written assurances from national security adviser Jake Sullivan.  

Asked on Thursday about Johnson's comments, State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said he would "not speak to the specifics about our correspondence with members of Congress and congressional leadership."

"[W]hatever may or may not happen is not — does not have bearing on the longstanding security relationship we may have with that country," he continued, without mentioning Israel. "[I]f we are to find a violation, it would be a restriction on a particular unit or component."

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