Washington Policy Weekly: Israel Resumes Military Operations as Temporary Pause Ends

Israel’s War on Gaza

Blinken Travels to Israel for Discussions on Gaza and West Bank.

Following discussions with regional leaders about the situation in Gaza, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his way to Israel for a week of meetings. Speaking with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Secretary Blinken reviewed efforts to increase humanitarian assistance into Gaza. The officials also discussed rising violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as steps to advance a Palestinian state. In addition to his sit-down with Abbas, Blinken met with members of the Israeli government. In meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Yoav Galant, and the Israeli War Cabinet in Jerusalem, Blinken reiterated the United States’ support for Israel’s “right to protect itself from terrorist violence.”

Back in Washington, support for Israel was also the subject of a House Resolution, as H.Res.888 overwhelmingly passed on Tuesday. The resolution, like several before it, expresses the House’s support for Israel’s security by reaffirming its right to exist. Notably, the resolution “recognizes that denying Israel’s right to exist is a form of antisemitism.” The resolution’s overwhelming bipartisan support drew strong reaction from progressives like Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who declared that H.Res.888 falls short of recognizing that “Palestinians also have a right to coexist with Israelis in their historic homeland, with equal rights and freedom, rather than living under racial segregation or being subjugated as second-class citizens.” Building on Tlaib’s response, the House also saw the introduction of H.Res.902 by Representative Al Green (D-TX), which affirms the State of Palestine’s right to exist.

Efforts to Extend Humanitarian Pause Fail

Last week marked the end of a seven-day humanitarian pause agreed to by Hamas and Israel. The pause had been brokered by Qatari, Egyptian, and US officials, who had pushed for an extension to the initially-agreed pause that allowed for the release of Israeli hostages in Gaza and Palestinians held under administrative detention in Israel. The temporary pause also allowed for a surge of humanitarian assistance into Gaza. US forces transported 54,000 pounds of humanitarian assistance by plane, with additional aircrafts expected in the coming days. By Thursday, 200 trucks had entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing while an additional 400 waited in the queue to enter. Despite the temporary increase in aid, the United Nation’s global appeal for the crisis in Gaza remains significantly underfunded, with only 21 percent of needs funded to date. To address the shortfall, a group of 57 lawmakers signed onto a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, asking him to deploy US hospital ships to the waters off Gaza to help provide civilians access to emergency medical care.

With news of the end of the pause, US officials announced their intention to negotiate an additional extension. White House National Security Council’s John Kirby told reporters that “if there can be extended pauses beyond these two-days extension, then, you know, we’re in favor of that.” Kirby’s message was echoed by Secretary Blinken, who indicated that the United States would try to “extend the pause so that we continue to get more hostages out and more humanitarian assistance in.” Blinken had also indicated that the Biden administration would want new assurances from Israel that it would put in place humanitarian civilian protection plans before resuming its military campaign as the pause ends. Nevertheless, reports began to surface on Friday morning that Israel had begun to bomb areas around Khan Younis, the Gaza Strip’s second largest city and its largest in the south. Almost two hundred Gazans were reportedly killed by the strikes in the first day. Since the resumption of Israel’s operation in Gaza, efforts to renegotiate a pause have broken down. On Friday, Secretary Blinken placed the blame on Hamas for failing to negotiate an extension, accusing the organization of reneging on commitments to release certain hostages.

Following news of the killing of 700 Palestinians over the weekend, the White House once again maintained its messaging that Israel must adhere to international humanitarian law. In a speech from Dubai, Vice President Kamala Harris asserted that “As Israel pursues its military objectives in Gaza, we believe Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians.” Harris also restated the administration’s five-principle guide for a post-conflict Gaza: “no forcible displacement, no reoccupation, no siege or blockade, no reduction in territory, and no use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism.” In her speech, Harris called on regional leaders, with some of whom she met over the weekend, to work toward reconstructing Gaza and bolstering the Palestinian Authority for its eventual governance of the territory, which is the Biden administration’s preference going forward.

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

House Resolution Introduced Condemning Calls to Expel American Palestinians. Representative Greg Landsman (D-OH) introduced H.Res.895, a resolution “condemning calls from Members of Congress for the expulsion of Palestinians from the United States.” The resolution is a direct response to Representative Ryan Zinke’s (R-MT) H.R.6211, the “Safeguarding Americans From Extremism Act of 2023.” Representative Zinke’s bill would prohibit Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas from issuing new visas to Palestinian nationals and revoke any visa given to a Palestinian national after October 1.

Senator Cruz Introduces Bill to Sanction Ansar Allah. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced S.3347, a bill to sanction the “Iran-controlled Houthis,” also known as Ansar Allah. Senator Cruz introduced the same bill in 2022 in response to the State Department’s decision to lift terrorism-related sanctions on the Houthis and some of its leadership.

No Funds for Iranian Terrorism Act Passes the House. The House passed H.R.5961, the No Funds for Iranian Terrorism Act, which was introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX). The bill, if passed by the Senate and signed into law, would “permanently freeze the $6 billion of Iranian funds released as part of the Biden administration’s 2023 hostage deal.”

Congress Pushes for Release of Hostages. The House passed H.Res.793, which calls on Hamas to immediately release all hostages it holds. In the Senate, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement in which he called on his colleagues to “not allow complacency to deter us in our shared mission to bring home the other hostages held by Hamas, including American citizens.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

SFRC Chairman Cardin Joins European Governments in Condemning Antisemitism and Islamophobia. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin (D-MD) issued a joint statement with the Chairs of 22 Foreign Affairs Committees in European parliaments condemning recent rises in antisemitism and Islamophobia.

90 Members of House Sign Letter to UN Women. 90 members of the House sent a letter to UN Women, urging it to publicly condemn Hamas for its October 7th attack “that included the murder, torture, rape and sexual violence against Israeli women and women of other nationalities.” The letter accuses UN Women of “remain[ing] silent since October 7th, neither condemning Hamas’ for its terrorist attack on Israeli civilians, nor acknowledging its horrific tactics against women and girls, including rape and sexual assault.”

Senator Schumer Outlines Intention to Bring Biden’s Package to Senate Floor. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) addressed a letter to his colleagues over the weekend in which he outlined his intention to bring President Biden’s national security supplemental package to the floor as soon as the week of December 4th. Some Republicans have previously resisted agreeing to the package and are seeking changes to US border policies as a condition for aid to Ukraine. Also in the letter, Schumer discussed the National Defense Authorization Act, which has yet to be agreed to, stating his intention to have it passed before the end of the year.

Ceasefire Count Grows. 60 members of Congress have now called for a ceasefire in Gaza as the list continues to grow week by week. Last week, Senator Peter Welch (D-VT) became just the fourth senator to call for a ceasefire, joining Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

3) Hearings and Briefings

House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on MENA Holds Roundtable with Families of Hostages. On November 29, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East held a public roundtable discussion with family members of those being held hostage by Hamas. The meeting was attended by Subcommittee Chairman Joe Wilson (R-SC), House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), and HFAC Ranking Member Gregory Meeks (D-NY), among other representatives. In his opening remarks, Representative McCaul expressed sympathy for the families of those taken hostage by Hamas, comparing the October 7 attacks to the Holocaust and celebrating the strong bipartisan support for Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Responds to Shooting of Three Palestinians in Burlington, Vermont. On November 27, President Biden issued a statement expressing horror over the shooting of three Palestinian college students in Burlington, Vermont, in an alleged racially-motivated attack.

Vice President Harris Travels to the UAE for COP28. On December 1 and 2, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to the UAE to attend the 28th UN Climate Change conference (COP28). Her trip followed a phone call between President Biden and President Mohamed bin Zayed of the UAE, where President Biden affirmed the bilateral US-UAE relationship and expressed his appreciation for the UAE’s organizing of COP28. Biden also welcomed bin Zayed’s announcement of the ALTERRA Fund, a $30 billion climate finance vehicle aimed at addressing the global climate crisis.

2) State Department

US and KSA Declare Intent to Peacefully Explore and Use Outer Space. The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia released a joint statement expressing an intent to “expand bilateral cooperation in the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes.” The statement was released ahead of negotiations on a Framework Agreement for space cooperation.

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Gives Briefing Ahead of COP28. On November 29, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry covered US priorities heading into the 28th annual UN Climate Change conference, or COP28. In addition to discussing the creation of a “global stocktake” document on climate change, Kerry expressed US interest in meeting climate goals set out by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Kerry also provided updates on the Green Shipping Challenge and Presidents’ Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience, which are measures launched at COP27 and COP26 to combat greenhouse gas emissions and provide funding for states to adapt to climate change, respectively. Following his trip to Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also participated in the conference, making a speech at a leaders event on durable food systems in the face of climate change.

State Department to Impose Visa Bans on Israeli Extremist Settlers. The State Department will reportedly impose visa bans on Israeli extremist settlers who engage in violence against Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank. President Biden had hinted at the decision in a November 18 piece written for the Washington Post.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Iraqi Prime Minister, Calls for Protection of US Forces. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia` al-Sudani and urged the Iraqi government to “to fulfill its commitments to protect all installations hosting US personnel at its invitation and to pursue those responsible for attacks on US personnel in Iraq.” Two days later, the US conducted an airstrike against pro-Iranian militants in northern Iraq, despite statements from PM Sudani that he rejected “any attack on Iraqi territory.”

3) Department of Defense

Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group Transits the Strait of Hormuz. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group transited the Strait of Hormuz into the Arabian Gulf. According to CENTCOM, the passage through the strait is part of US commitment to “the free flow of commerce, regional security and freedom of navigation.”

US Warship Downs Yemeni Drone. On November 29, the USS Carney, a Navy destroyed, downed an Iranian-made drone launched from a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen. The Carney was escorting US supply ships in the southern Red Sea at the time of the shoot-down, which resulted in no harm to US personnel or ships.

CETNCOM Ship Protects Three Commercial Ships from Houthi Attacks. On December 3, the USS Carney responded to four attacks against three separate commercial vessels operating in the Red Sea. Over the course of the day, the Carney responded to distress calls from the ships, detected incoming attacks targeting the vessels, and downed two drones launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. CENTCOM stated afterwards that these attacks were “fully enabled by Iran,” and vowed to “consider all appropriate responses” with international allies and partners.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Designates 20 Individuals and Entities for Ties to Iranian Military. The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned over 20 individuals and entities for financially aiding the Iranian Ministry of Defense and its military. The sanctions target foreign-based front companies which generate revenue to support groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.