Israeli Strike on Aid Workers Prompts US Criticism

Last week was headlined by news of Israel’s April 1 killing of seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen (WCK), an NGO that has been providing food relief in Gaza amid the worsening humanitarian crisis there. US officials quickly called for an immediate investigation into the attack, which Israel preliminarily labeled a result of “grave errors.” President Joe Biden stated that he was “outraged and heartbroken” by Israel’s lethal strike and that “Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians.”

Biden conveyed this message to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an April 4 phone call to discuss the incident and the situation in Gaza. Biden urged Netanyahu “to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.” According to the White House readout, Biden “emphasized that the strikes on humanitarian workers and the overall humanitarian situation [in Gaza] are unacceptable” and “made clear the need for Israel to implement steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.” Biden also told Netanyahu that “U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.”

The President’s message was echoed by top US officials. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III expressed “outrage” over the Israel strike in an April 3 telephone call with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant. Speaking at a press briefing in Brussels on April 4, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Israel’s treatment of humanitarian assistance “insufficient and unacceptable…This week’s horrific attack on the World Central Kitchen was not the first such incident. It must be the last.” Criticism from Congress was led by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who called on April 2 for a “swift, thorough, and impartial” investigation. Three days later, 37 House Democrats—including longtime strong Israel backer and former speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)—wrote to President Biden calling on the United States to halt weapons to Israel if the WCK strike “is found to have violated U.S. or international law” and if Israel fails to sufficiently mitigate harm to civilians in Gaza and to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

On April 4, Israel announced the temporary opening of the Erez crossing (also known as the Beit Hanoun crossing) in northern Gaza and the port of Ashdod to move more aid into Gaza. The swift increase in humanitarian access after months of Israeli intransigence represents a rare instance in which the Biden administration has chosen to use US leverage to affect Israel’s behavior in the Gaza war. This is a positive development, but such a rapid policy change compels us to ask why it took so long to see these access points opened and why the administration has not done more to influence Israel’s behavior. As of April 2, at least 196 humanitarian workers in Gaza have been killed in this war, most of whom were Palestinian. The US administration’s selective anger in response to the WCK killing—showing more outrage than it has over the deaths of more than 33,000 Gazans—typifies its callousness toward Palestinians.

Also Happening Last Week…

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Bipartisan Group of Representatives Introduces United States-Israel Anti-Tunnel Cooperation Enhancement Act. On April 2, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) led a group of bipartisan representatives in introducing H.R.7866 which, as stated in a press release, would appropriate $80 million for the United States and Israel to collaborate on efforts to source the “best technology and tools available to detect, destroy and maneuver through terror tunnels.” Rep. Wilson, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, stated that the “bill sends a strong message that the U.S. will always stand with Israel.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

House Democrats Press Speaker Johnson to Bolster Humanitarian Spending. On April 2, eight House Democrats sent a letter to Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) outlining the need for a supplemental appropriations package that includes at least $9.16 billion in global humanitarian assistance in the International Disaster Assistance and the Migration and Refugee Assistance accounts. The letter urged the Speaker to bring forth the supplemental, citing worsening conditions in Gaza as well as in Sudan and Lebanon.

Senators Call on Biden Administration to Increase Medical Deliveries to Gaza. On April 4, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Peter Welch (D-VT) sent a letter to President Biden requesting that his administration “drastically increase” the supply of medicine and medical equipment to hospitals in Gaza. The letter states that “the crisis on the ground has only worsened after Israeli raids on hospitals, and continued fighting has created fuel shortages that put hospitals out of commission,” emphasizing that “a sea change is desperately needed.” The senators also asked the administration to consider sending two Navy hospital ships to help provide urgently needed health services to Palestinians.

Republican Senators Write Letter Requesting Information on Iran Sanction Waiver. Also on April 4, 13 Senate Republicans led by Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) penned a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Blinken regarding recent reporting that the Biden administration has decided to renew a sanctions waiver for Iran. The senators wrote, “the waiver makes restricted Iranian funds more accessible to the Ayatollah’s regime, at a time when Iranian-backed aggression in the region is at a peak.” The senators also accused the administration of not being forthcoming with Congress regarding plans to “restore deterrence” in the Middle East.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

US, Israeli Officials Meet Virtually to Discuss Potential Rafah Operation. On April 1, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken convened the Strategic Consultative Group (SCG) with Israeli counterparts for a virtual meeting to discuss a potential Israeli military operation in Rafah. According to the joint statement released after the meetings, the US side “expressed concerns with various courses of action in Rafah” but shares Israel’s objective to “see Hamas defeated in Rafah,” and Israeli officials agreed to take US concerns into account and to hold follow up discussions.

White House Comments on Israeli Law to Ban News Networks Deemed a Security Risk. Also on April 1, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu announced in a post on X (formerly Twitter) that the Israeli Knesset had passed a law to ban news networks that the government deems a security risk, targeting the Al Jazeera network. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre commented that the law is “concerning” and emphasized that “the United States supports the critically important work journalists around the world do… and that includes those who are reporting in…the conflict in Gaza.”

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Speaks with PA President. On April 1, Secretary Blinken spoke  with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas regarding the recent changes in the PA’s cabinet. According to a readout issued by Spokesperson Matthew Miller, Blinken emphasized to Abbas that “a revitalized PA is essential to delivering results for the Palestinian people in both the West Bank and Gaza” and that the United States is committed to reaching a ceasefire and hostage release deal that will allow for an increase in humanitarian assistance to Gaza.  

Special Envoy for Yemen Travels to Saudi Arabia and Oman. US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to Saudi Arabia and Oman the week of April 1 to discuss efforts to halt the ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. In Oman, Lenderking expressed his “appreciation for the important role Oman has played in advancing peace in Yemen and for the importance of this bilateral relationship to the United States.” In meetings with Saudi officials, Lenderking emphasized the need “to secure Houthi de-escalation and renew focus on securing a durable peace for the Yemeni people.”

Secretary Blinken Meets with French Foreign Minister. On April 2, Secretary Blinken met with French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné in Paris. In a press briefing, the pair called for an immediate investigation into the World Central Kitchen strike. They mentioned the need for ongoing cooperation to prevent the conflict in Gaza from escalating regionally and reiterated a commitment to the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state.  

Department Commemorates National Arab American Heritage Month. In an April 2 statement, Secretary Blinken noted that “we mark National Arab American Heritage Month at a time of immense pain,” recognizing that many Arab Americans have friends, family, and loved ones who have been killed in Gaza. The statement emphasized the need for an immediate ceasefire and said that the administration will continue to seek input from the Arab American community as it pursues “lasting peace and security in the Middle East.”

Department Requests Legislative Review of Proposed Sale of F-15s to Israel. The New York Times reported on April 2 that the Department of State recently requested that two congressional committees begin a review process of a proposed $18 billion sale of F-15 fighter jets to Israel. Commenting on the reporting, Spokesperson Miller stated that this sale relates “to our overall security relationship with Israel and our overall commitment to Israel’s defense against a number of adversaries.” During an interview with CNN on April 4, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) indicated that she plans to move to block the sale of the F-15s to “a country that is in violation of our own laws,” referring to the recent Israeli strike on World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza.

US Opposed Draft Resolution at UN Security Council Condemning Strike in Damascus. On April 3, the United States, France, and Britain opposed a draft UN Security Council statement led by Russia condemning Israel’s April 1 strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, which Iran said killed Iranian IRGC generals.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Conducts Additional Airdrops in Gaza. CENTCOM announced that, with assistance from the Royal Jordanian Air Force, it carried out additional airdrops of humanitarian assistance into northern Gaza throughout last week.

Department Comments on Strike in Syria and Construction of Gaza Pier. During a press briefing on April 2, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh stated that Israel did not notify the United States before its April 1 strike targeting the Iranian consulate in Damascus. Singh also explained that the U.S. construction of the pier off the coast of Gaza is on schedule and will be used to deliver humanitarian assistance as soon as it is complete.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Announces Actions Targeting Funding for the Iranian Military. On April 4, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it is targeting Oceanlink Maritime DMCC, a shipping company working with Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS) and Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL). OFAC also announced that it will be listing 13 vessels connected to the company as “blocked property” as part of an effort to disrupt what Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson described as “Iran’s ability to finance its terrorist proxy and partner groups.”

5) United States Agency for International Development

USAID Announces Additional Humanitarian Assistance for Lebanon. On April 3, the United States Agency for International Development announced an additional $67 million in humanitarian assistance to Lebanon. USAID cited “acute levels of food insecurity and increased emergency health care needs across the country” as driving the need for increased aid. USAID and the World Food Programme will collaborate to deliver meals to the most vulnerable in Lebanon, including Syrian refugees.