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U.S. weapons fan violence in Mideast, critics charge


JERUSALEM - Israel's use of American-supplied F-16 fighter jets against Palestinian targets last week fueled a growing debate over whether the United States, as Israel's chief arms supplier, is indirectly contributing to the bloodshed even while U.S. officials work to end it.

The F-16s were only the most startling American weapon used in the 8-month-old resurgence of violence, which has killed at least 446 Palestinians, 87 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs, and produces new casualties almost daily.

On numerous occasions, Israel has used U.S.-made attack helicopters to fire on Palestinian targets in areas inhabited by civilians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as U.S.-made rockets. Other weapons contain American components or are based on U.S. patents.

Critics, including human rights groups and Arab-American organizations, say the American weapons are used by Israel to commit serious human rights violations that inflame the cycle of revenge and violate U.S. law.

While reviewing how U.S. weapons are used and occasionally criticizing Israel, the United States hasn't taken steps to cut off or delay the arms supply. Israel says the weapons are used in self-defense - either to retaliate against shooting, mortar and bomb attacks by Palestinians against Israeli soldiers and civilians or to prevent acts of terrorism.

Gerald Steinberg, a military affairs expert at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, described charges of human rights abuses as "a cynical manipulation to connect Israel to Serbia." He said Israel's action "falls within the letter of the Israeli-American relationship and also the spirit."

$1.8 billion in U.S. aid

Israel gets $1.8 billion a year in U.S. military aid, and the amount is expected to increase to $2.4 billion as U.S. economic aid is reduced. The aid is used both to buy American weaponry and to buy arms made in Israel.

Israel is awaiting $4 billion worth of American military hardware, including new F-16s and Apache and Blackhawk helicopters.

As Israel's main ally and supporter internationally, the United States is committed to maintaining the Jewish state's qualitative edge in weapons over its regional adversaries.

Unlike America's Persian Gulf allies, Israel has steadfastly insisted on defending itself, asking only for the United States to help with the means.

But for the first time in many years, weapons acquired mainly to protect Israel against attack by a regional enemy are being used against a neighboring people who lack both a state and an army and whose weapons - even the mortar bombs used in recent months - aren't comparable to Israel's. Their most lethal weapon is the suicide bomber.

Hefty firepower

Given the hefty firepower at its disposal, the Israeli army has been sparing in its assaults, and officials insist that they are trying to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. But, in addition to the number of civilians killed by live fire and rubber bullets, Israeli tanks, machine guns and helicopters have damaged thousands of homes, displacing and terrifying residents.

Human rights groups say that as an occupying power, Israel has a particular responsibility under the Geneva Conventions to protect Palestinian civilians.

"The evidence available shows that most cases of unlawful killings and injuries have been committed by the Israeli security forces using excessive force," Amnesty International said in a report in March. "The IDF [Israeli Army] has used U.S.-supplied helicopters in punitive rocket attacks during incidents where there was no imminent danger to life and has used helicopter gunships to fire on Palestinians, including children, some of whom have reportedly been killed or injured as a result."

Some of the attacks using American weapons have drawn public American criticism. The annual State Department human rights report described Israel's assassinations of suspected terrorist or militia leaders as "extra-judicial killing," an internationally recognized human rights violation.

The report described the use of an attack helicopter in November in the first such assassination, which killed Fatah official Hussein Mohamed Salim Ubayyat and two Palestinian women walking nearby.

Edward S. Walker, who recently retired as assistant secretary of state for the Near East, told The Sun that U.S. officials had also complained to Israel about the use of attack helicopters in areas where civilian casualties could result.

"It was a clear administration position that this was an excessive use of force," he said. For a while, he noted, Israel stopped using the helicopters.

Attacks on Palestinians

On Monday, U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk sharply criticized Israeli attacks on Palestinian policemen. His rebuke came a day after Israeli tank fire hit the home of the Palestinian security chief in the West Bank, and three days after an F-16 attack against a police headquarters in Nablus killed 12 policemen.

"Those who would stop the violence - Palestinian police or the head of the Palestinian security organization in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub - are being hit, bombed, shelled, killed by the Israeli Defense Forces," Indyk said in a speech at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva.

In Washington, the Arab-American Institute lobbying group has been pushing the State Department for months to stop supplying weapons used against Palestinians.

In a recent letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the group's president, James Zogby, said the weapons were "dangerously escalating the current conflict," which he said Arab leaders are coming to see as an "Israeli-U.S. war against the Palestinians."

The administration's role in scrutinizing the use of the weapons stems from the U.S. Arms Export Control Act and a 1952 mutual-defense pact between the United States and Israel. Both require that American weapons be used for the purposes of defense or internal security.

The president and Congress each can cut off military supplies if either finds a "serious violation" of these requirements. In addition, the president can delay or block weapons shipments if a serious violation is suspected but unproved. A separate law, the Foreign Assistance Act, bars aid to countries that commit gross human rights abuses.

Possible rules violations

Several times, the U.S. administration has notified Congress that Israel might have broken the rules on how U.S. weapons are used: in 1978, 1979 and 1982 during fighting in Lebanon, and once after Israel's bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

On at least two occasions, the United States delayed new shipments of warplanes to Israel and, from 1982 to 1988, barred Israel from acquiring cluster bombs.

Administration officials, including experts in the Defense, Commerce and State departments, have been reviewing for weeks how Israel has acted during the Palestinian uprising.

While they may conclude Israeli actions constitute defense or protecting internal security, they will also have to weigh whether use of the weapons was proportional to the danger posed by Palestinian gunmen and bombers. Any decision to notify Congress of a suspected violation would likely be made at the top level.

Israeli officials voice confidence that the United States won't punish Israel for its actions during the current uprising.

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