Blinken denies US double standard over alleged Israeli rights abuses

By Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday rejected suggestions that Washington might have a "double standard" when applying U.S. law to allegations of abuses by the Israeli military in Gaza and said that examinations of such charges are ongoing.

"Do we have a double standard? The answer is no," Blinken told a news conference announcing the Department's annual human rights country reports.

"In general, as we're looking at human rights and the condition of human rights around the world, we apply the same standard to everyone. That doesn't change whether the country is an adversary, a competitor, a friend or an ally," he said.

"When it comes to allegations of incidents or whether it's violations of international humanitarian law, rights abuses...we have processes within the department that are looking at that incidents that have been raised. Those processes are ongoing," Blinken said.

He declined to provide when those processes might produce a definitive assessment.

Israel's military conduct has come under increasing scrutiny as its forces have killed 34,000 Palestinians in besieged Gaza, according to the enclave's health authorities, many of them civilians and children. The Gaza Strip has been reduced to a wasteland, and extreme food shortages have prompted fears of famine.

Israel launched its assault in response to a Hamas attack on Oct. 7, in which Israel says 1,200 people were killed.

Rights groups have flagged numerous incidents of civilian harm during the Israeli army's offensive in Gaza, as well as raised alarm about rising violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinian Health Ministry records show Israeli forces or settlers have killed at least 460 Palestinians since Oct. 7. But so far the Biden administration has said it has not found Israel in breach of international law.

Advocates have raised questions of double standards saying Washington has been quick to condemn the actions of, for example, Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, but the Biden administration has been careful not to go too far in its criticism of Israel.

Brian Finucane, Senior Adviser to the US Program at the International Crisis Group pushed back on Blinken's comments, saying it was "disingenuous" to say partners and adversaries get the same treatment on the issue.

"With adversaries like Russia, there is a policy demand to make quasi-legal, public determinations about atrocity crimes. With partners like Israel, there is the opposite policy demand to avoid reaching any inconvenient legal conclusions," said Finucane, who formerly was a State Department lawyer.

Washington gives $3.8 billion in annual military assistance to its longtime ally. Leftist Democrats and Arab American groups have criticized the Biden administration's steadfast support for Israel, which they say provides it with a sense of impunity.

But this month, President Joe Biden for the first time threatened to condition support for Israel, and insisted that it take concrete steps to protect humanitarian aid workers and civilians.

Israel has denied allegations of deliberately causing humanitarian suffering in the enclave. It denies deliberately targeting civilians, accusing Hamas of using residential buildings for cover. Hamas denies this.

The State Department in its 2023 human rights report about Israel said the war with Hamas has had "a significant negative impact" on the human rights situation in Israel, and cited allegations of numerous incidents such as arbitrary or unlawful killings, enforced disappearance, torture and unjustified arrests of journalists among others.

"Israeli authorities operating in Gaza took no publicly visible steps to identify and punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses," said the report, covering the incidents of last year.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Josie Kao and Alison Williams)