A special State Department panel recommended months ago that Secretary of State Antony Blinken disqualify multiple Israeli military and police units from receiving U.S. aid after reviewing allegations that they committed serious human rights abuses.

But Blinken has failed to act on the proposal in the face of growing international criticism of the Israeli military’s conduct in Gaza, according to current and former State Department officials.

The incidents under review mostly took place in the West Bank and occurred before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. They include reports of extrajudicial killings by the Israeli Border Police; an incident in which a battalion gagged, handcuffed and left an elderly Palestinian American man for dead; and an allegation that interrogators tortured and raped a teenager who had been accused of throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.

Recommendations for action against Israeli units were sent to Blinken in December, according to one person familiar with the memo. “They’ve been sitting in his briefcase since then,” another official said.

A State Department spokesperson told ProPublica the agency takes its commitment to uphold U.S. human rights laws seriously. “This process is one that demands a careful and full review,” the spokesperson said, “and the department undergoes a fact-specific investigation applying the same standards and procedures regardless of the country in question.”

The revelations about Blinken’s failure to act on the recommendations come at a delicate moment in U.S.-Israel relations. Six months into its war against Hamas, whose militants massacred 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped 240 more on Oct. 7, the Israeli military has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, according to local authorities. Recently, President Joe Biden has signaled increased frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the widespread civilian casualties.

Multiple State Department officials who have worked on Israeli relations said that Blinken’s inaction has undermined Biden’s public criticism, sending a message to the Israelis that the administration was not willing to take serious steps.

The recommendations came from a special committee of State Department officials known as the Israel Leahy Vetting Forum. The panel, made up of Middle East and human rights experts, is named for former Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chief author of 1997 laws that require the U.S. to cut off assistance to any foreign military or law enforcement units — from battalions of soldiers to police stations — that are credibly accused of flagrant human rights violations.

The Guardian reported this year that the State Department was reviewing several of the incidents but had not imposed sanctions because the U.S. government treats Israel with unusual deference. Officials told ProPublica that the panel ultimately recommended that the secretary of state take action.

This story is drawn from interviews with present and former State Department officials as well as government documents and emails obtained by ProPublica. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations.

The Israeli government did not respond to a request for comment.

Over the years, hundreds of foreign units, including from Mexico, Colombia and Cambodia, have been blocked from receiving any new aid. Officials say enforcing the Leahy Laws can be a strong deterrent against human rights abuses.

Human rights organizations tracking Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attacks have collected eyewitness testimony and videos posted by Israeli soldiers that point to widespread abuses in Gaza and the West Bank.

“If we had been applying Leahy effectively in Israel like we do in other countries, maybe you wouldn’t have the IDF filming TikToks of their war crimes now because we have contributed to a culture of impunity,” said Josh Paul, a former director in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and a member of the vetting forum. Paul resigned in protest shortly after Israel began its bombing campaign of Gaza in October.

The Leahy Laws apply to countries that receive American-funded training or arms. In the decades after the passage of those laws, the State Department, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, followed a de facto policy of exempting billions of dollars of foreign military financing to Israel from their strictures, according to multiple experts on the region.

In 2020, Leahy and others in Congress passed a law to tighten the oversight. The State Department set up the vetting forum to identify Israeli security force units that shouldn’t be receiving American assistance. Until now, it has been paralyzed by its bureaucracy, failing to fulfill the hopes of its sponsors.

Critics have long assailed what they view as Israel’s special treatment. Incidents that would have disqualified units in other countries did not have the same result in Israel, according to Charles Blaha, the former director of the State Department’s Office of Security and Human Rights and a former participant in the Israeli vetting forum. “There is no political will,” he said.

Typically, the reports of wrongdoing come from nongovernment organizations like Human Rights Watch or from press accounts. The State Department officials determining whether to recommend sanctions generally do not draw on the vast array of classified material gathered by America’s intelligence agencies.

Actions against an Israeli unit are subject to additional layers of scrutiny. The forum is required to consult the government of Israel. Then, if the forum agrees that there is credible evidence of a human rights violation, the issue goes to more senior officials, including some of the department’s top diplomats who oversee the Middle East and arms transfers. Then the recommendations can be sent to the secretary of state for final approval, either with consensus or as split decisions.

Even if Blinken were to approve the sanctions, officials said, Israel could blunt their impact. One approach would be for the country to buy American arms with its own funds and give them to the units that had been sanctioned. Officials said the symbolism of calling out Israeli units for misconduct would nonetheless be potent, marking a sign of disapproval of the civilian toll the war is taking.

Since it was formed in 2020, the forum has reviewed reports of multiple cases of rape and extrajudicial killings, according to the documents ProPublica obtained. Those cases also included several incidents where teenagers were reportedly beaten in custody before being released without charges. The State Department records obtained by ProPublica do not clearly indicate which cases the experts ultimately recommended for sanctions, and several have been tabled pending more information from the Israelis.

Israel generally argues it has addressed allegations of misconduct and human rights abuses through its own military discipline and legal systems. In some of the cases, the forum was satisfied that Israel had taken serious steps to punish the perpetrators.

But officials agreed on a number of human rights violations, including some that the Israeli government had not appeared to adequately address.

Among the allegations reviewed by the committee was the January 2021 arrest of a 15-year old boy by Israeli Border Police. The teen was held for five days at the Al-Mascobiyya detention center on charges that he had thrown stones and Molotov cocktails at security forces. Citing an allegation shared by a Palestinian child welfare nonprofit, forum officials said there was credible information the teen had been forced to confess after he was “subjected to both physical and sexual torture, including rape by an object.”

Two days after the State Department asked the Israeli government for information about what steps it had taken to hold the perpetrators accountable, Israeli police raided the nonprofit that had originally shared the allegation and later designated it a terrorist organization. The Israelis told State Department officials they had found no evidence of sexual assault or torture but reprimanded one of the teen’s interrogators for kicking a chair.

Do you have any information about American arms shipments to countries accused of human rights violations? Contact Brett Murphy at [email protected] or by Signal at 508-523-5195.

Alex Mierjeski contributed reporting.