The US is expected to block aid to an Israeli military unit. What is Leahy law that it would cite?

WASHINGTON — Israel expects its key ally, the United States, to announce as early as Monday that it is blocking military aid to an Israeli army unit over gross human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied West Bank before the war in Gaza began six months ago.

The move would mark the first time in the two countries’ decades-long partnership that a U.S. administration has invoked a 27-year-old congressional law known as the Leahy Act against an Israeli military unit.

It comes at a time when the US-Israeli relationship is increasingly strained by civilian deaths and suffering in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

Here’s a look at the Leahy Law and how it can be invoked:

Former Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy championed legislation that became the Leahy Act in the 1990s. He said the U.S. needed a tool to block U.S. military aid and training to foreign security forces guilty of extrajudicial killings, rape, torture and other blatant human rights violations.

One of the first targets of the 1997 law was typical of the kind of renegade units Congress envisioned: a Colombian army unit accused of knowingly killing thousands of civilians, in part to get bonuses that were then offered for killing militants.

Other U.S. laws should address other circumstances in which abuses would require blocking military aid. This includes a February 2023 order from President Joe Biden dictating that “no arms transfer shall be authorized” if the US determines that a foreign power would be more likely than not to use these weapons to commit serious violations of the laws of war, human rights or other crimes to commit. , including ‘serious acts of violence against children’.

The law requires an automatic end to aid to a military unit if the State Department finds credible evidence that it has committed gross abuses. A second law from Leahy says the same for the training of foreign military personnel by the Department of Defense.

Rights groups have long accused US administrations, including Biden’s, of ignoring rigorous investigations into allegations of Israeli military killings and other abuses against Palestinians to avoid invoking such laws aimed at linking military aid to lawful behavior of foreign forces.

Israel says its security forces investigate abuses and its courts hold offenders accountable.

Regularly when it comes to American security assistance to countries in the former Soviet Union and in Central and South America and Africa. Not often when it comes to strategically vital American allies.

In 2022, for example, the US found enough evidence of abuse to trigger the Leahy Act for police and other forces in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico and the Caribbean country of Saint Lucia.

The administration also has the ability to notify Congress of law enforcement incidents in Leahy in classified environments to avoid embarrassing key partners.

Administration veterans argue that no U.S. administration has invoked this against Israel before, said Sarah Elaine Harrison, a former Defense Department attorney who worked on Leahy legal issues and is now a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Harrison points to a 2021 treaty in which Israel stipulated that it would not share U.S. military aid with any entity that the U.S. had credibly deemed guilty of gross human rights violations.

U.S. law provides a way out for an offender: a Secretary of State can waive the Leahy Act if he or she determines that the government concerned is taking effective steps to bring the offenders in the targeted unit to justice.

The US continues to send billions of dollars in funding and weapons to Israel, including a new $26 billion package to shore up Israel’s defenses and provide aid for the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. The Senate is expected to approve it this week and Biden says he will sign.