Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

National Security Supplemental Becomes Law. On April 23, in a 79-18 vote the Senate passed H.R.815, which combines the four security assistance bills passed by the House on April 20. The Senate bill totals $93.5 billion and includes $26.4 billion for Israel and $1 billion for humanitarian aid for Gaza—but notably, it prohibits any such aid going to UNRWA. President Biden signed the bill into law on April 24, commenting that his support for Israel is “ironclad” while adding that “Israel must make sure this aid reaches all of the Palestinians in Gaza, without delay.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Bipartisan Group of Senators Calls for Stronger Sanctions on Iran. On April 24, Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced their recent letter to President Biden calling on the administration to “enforce stronger sanctions against Iran” with a focus on the oil and gas sector and other revenue sources.

Bipartisan House Letter Expresses Concern with Turkish Aid Flotilla. On April 26, a bipartisan group of representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing concern “about deteriorating Israeli-Turkish relations and reports that a Turkish coalition is allegedly planning to launch a flotilla to Gaza.” The letter asserts that “such a hastily organized and unvetted effort could further inflame regional tensions, disrupt existing aid delivery mechanisms, exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and jeopardize multilateral negotiations aimed at securing a temporary ceasefire and the release of Israeli hostages.” The letter also expresses dismay over Turkey’s recent export restrictions on construction materials to Israel.

Sanders Describes War on Gaza as “Ethnic Cleansing.” In an April 28 interview with CNN, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) stated, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that what Netanyahu is doing now—displacing 80 percent of the population in Gaza—is ethnic cleansing. That’s what it is.” Sen. Sanders also expressed dismay over Israel’s plans for a Rafah invasion. “And now we’re looking at the possibility of an attack on Rafah, where people have gone to as a so-called safety zone. So, what’s going on there, again, to my mind, is outrageous,” Sanders remarked.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Condemns “Antisemitic” Campus Protests for Palestine. Asked on April 22 about the surge of student protests around the country, President Biden said he “condemn[s] the antisemitic protests.” He added, “I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

Last week saw a wave of demands from congressional Republicans and Democrats to crack down on criticism of Israel. On April 23, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) led a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona calling for the immediate prosecution of protestors. An April 23 letter from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) to Garland, Cardona, and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas called on the Biden administration to withhold federal funding from Columbia University, revoke visas of students engaging in the protests, and launch an investigation into the protests. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on April 25 that any decision to deploy the national guard in respective states “is something for the governors to decide.” On April 26, Representatives Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Mike Lawler (R-NY) announced the introduction of legislation to create a special monitor of campus antisemitism, though the bill fully conflates antisemitism with speech critical of the state of Israel.

VP Harris Speaks with Israeli President. On April 23, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Israeli President Isaac Herzog. According to the White House readout, they discussed developments in the region, including international efforts to support Israeli security, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and ceasefire negotiations.

White House Issues Joint Statement Calling for Release of Hostages. On April 25, the White House issued a joint statement along with 17 countries calling for the immediate release of Israeli hostages in Gaza. The statement encouraged Hamas to accept a deal currently on the table that would release the hostages and bring about a ceasefire. White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby commented on reporting that Hamas is willing to lay down its arms in exchange for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, to which Kirby reiterated the US position that “there’s not going to be a Palestinian state with Hamas in control. It’s a terrorist organization.”

2) Department of State

State Releases Annual Human Rights Report. On April 22, the Department of State released the 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which has been submitted to Congress for review. The report assesses human rights conditions in two hundred countries and territories. Asked about whether the United States has been applying the same legal standards to Israel as it does to other countries, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that “we apply the same standard to everyone,” adding that the department has confidence in the “many open investigations based on reports that have been – that have come forward with allegations about abuses of human rights or abuse of international humanitarian law, laws of war, et cetera” that Israel is currently conducting.

Blinken Speaks with Bahraini Crown Prince and PM. On April 22, Secretary Blinken spoke by telephone with Bahraini Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. The officials discussed efforts to prevent regional escalation of the Gaza war and the US-Bahrain relationship. Blinken also expressed appreciation for Bahrain’s contributions to maritime security in the region.

Department Responds to Attacks in Darfur. On April 24, Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller issued a statement on reported attacks in El Fasher, North Darfur, Sudan. The statement called on the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and their allied militias to call off any planned attacks that “would subject civilians to extreme danger, including the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who have taken refuge there.” It also condemned the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) for reported bombings that have restricted humanitarian access and put civilians at further risk.

US and Oman Hold Second Strategic Dialogue. On April 24, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Jose W. Fernandez hosted Sheikh Khalifa bin Ali bin Issa al-Harthy, Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the Omani Foreign Ministry, for the second US-Oman Strategic Dialogue. The dialogue aims to strengthen bilateral cooperation on issues including trade and investment, clean energy, education, culture, and science.

New Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues Announced. On April 25, Secretary Blinken announced the appointment of US Institute of Peace President Lise Grande as the new US Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues, replacing Ambassador David Satterfield. The Special Envoy position was created following the launch of Israel’s war in Gaza last October. As Special Envoy, Grande will work with USAID, other US agencies, and Israel and other regional partners “to ensure aid gets to the most vulnerable populations that need it, and that humanitarian workers operating in the region are protected” in Gaza.

Arabic Language Spokesperson Resigns Over Gaza Policy. Hala Rharrit, the department’s Arabic language spokesperson, reportedly resigned from her post last week in protest against the Biden administration’s Gaza policy. In an April 25 press briefing, Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel refrained from commenting on what he called a “personnel matter” but stated that “the Secretary wants to hear differing points of views” and continues to read internal dissent cables. Rharrit, who joined the US Foreign Service in 2006, reportedly posted on her LinkedIn page, “I resigned April 2024 after 18 years of distinguished service in opposition to the United States’ Gaza policy. Diplomacy, not arms. Be a force for peace and unity.”

Department Presses for Israeli Investigation into Mass Graves in Gaza. During an April 22 press conference, Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller responded to questions about reported mass graves recently discovered in Gaza, stating that he had “seen those reports and we are inquiring about it with the Government of Israel.” On April 25, Principal Deputy Spokesperson Patel stated that the Department continues “to find these reports incredibly troubling” and that US officials are “continuing to press the Government of Israel for more information,” though he maintained that the administration would not press for an independent forensic investigation.

Assistant Secretary for the Near East Meets with G7 to Discuss Gaza. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf met with representatives from the G7 countries in Brussels on April 24 to discuss humanitarian assistance for Gaza and post-war planning for Gaza and for Israeli-Palestinian relations more broadly. Leaf stated that the group plans to play a key role in the post-war phase, which “would involve international donors contributing to the robust reconstruction of Gaza, fostering security arrangements, and a Palestinian-led governing structure.” She also said that the G7 seeks to support the Palestinian Authority as a potential governing institution for Gaza.

Department Decides to Hold Off on Sanctions of IDF Battalion. On April 26, Axios reported that the Department of State has decided to hold off on imposing Leahy Law human rights sanctions on “Netzah Yehuda,” an IDF battalion accused of committing human rights violations against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Previously, on April 20, Axios reported that the Department was planning to ban the battalion and its members from receiving any US military assistance or training until the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) remedies the violations. The April 26 Axios report stated that the Department of State is now “reviewing the issue in light of information Israel provided in recent days.” The United States has never applied the Leahy Law to the IDF despite longtime credible allegations of serious rights violations.

Senior US Officials Concerned Israel Not Complying with International Humanitarian Law. Reuters reported on April 27 that a joint memorandum to Secretary Blinken from four Department of State bureaus—Democracy Human Rights & Labor; Population, Refugees and Migration; Global Criminal Justice; and International Organization Affairs—raised “serious concern” regarding Israel’s non-compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL).  The memo reportedly argued that Israel’s assurances that it is using US-supplied weapons in accordance with IHL were neither credible nor reliable.

Reacting to the Reuters report, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) commented that there is “serious doubt on the integrity of the process in the Biden administration for reviewing whether the Netanyahu government is complying with international law in Gaza.”

Department Condemns Attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan Region. On April 26, the department issued a statement condemning an attack on energy infrastructure in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. The statement encouraged an investigation into the attack and reiterated US support for the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government in support of Iraqi security, stability, and sovereignty.

Department Expresses Concern with Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation in Iraq. On April 27, the Department expressed concern over the Iraqi Council of Representatives’ passage of an amendment to the “Anti-Prostitution and Homosexuality Law.” The Department declared that the amendment threatens free speech, inhibits the operations of NGOs, and hinders foreign investment in Iraq.

3) Department of Defense

DoD Announces First Attacks on US Forces in Iraq and Syria Since Early February. On April 24, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters that Iran-affiliated militia groups recently conducted two unsuccessful attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria, the first such attacks on coalition facilities since February 4. Ryder called on the Iraqi government to “take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of US forces in Iraq and Syria against attacks from these groups,” adding, “If these attacks continue, we will not hesitate to defend our forces, as we have done in the past.”

Gaza Pier on Track for Completion. On April 25, Press Secretary Ryder alerted the media that the construction of a humanitarian pier off the coast of Gaza is on track for completion in early May. Responding to media reports that Hamas militants launched mortar rounds at Israeli forces close to the pier site, Ryder asserted that US forces were “nowhere near mortar range.”

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Announces Additional Sanctions on Iranian Actors. On April 23, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned two companies and four individuals associated with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Cyber Electronic Command (IRGC-CEC) for their role in targeting US companies and government entities in cyber operations. In conjunction with the sanctions, the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced an indictment against the four individuals for their activity. On April 25, OFAC announced additional sanctions on more than a dozen entities, individuals, and vessels that have aided in the development and sale of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles for Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL). The United Kingdom and Canada concurrently announced their own sanctions.

5) United States Agency for International Development

USAID Reportedly Argues Israel Violating International Humanitarian Law in Gaza. An exclusive April 26 report by Devex revealed that a USAID memo has concluded that Israel is in violation of a February White House National Security Memorandum requiring recipients of US military assistance to comply with international humanitarian law and to permit the unimpeded delivery of US-funded humanitarian aid. According to Devex, the USAID memo states that “deterioration of food security and nutrition in Gaza is unprecedented in modern history, exponentially outpacing in six months the long-term declines that led to the only other two famine declarations in the 21st century: Somalia (2011) and South Sudan (2017).”