Washington Policy Weekly: Israel’s Operation Will Take “More Than Several Months,” US Officials Voice “Concerns”

Israel’s Operations in Gaza Will Take Months

Senior US officials continued their discussions with their Israeli counterparts last week, headlined by White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s meeting with the Israeli war cabinet. Sullivan discussed developments on the ground, including the United States’ and Israel’s shared objective of defeating Hamas, the need to minimize harm to civilians, and the urgency of increasing the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, later welcoming Israel’s move to open up an additional border crossing at Kerem Shalom (Karm Abu-Salem) for the delivery of aid. Sullivan’s visit drew considerable attention on Thursday after a joint media availability with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant who told Sullivan in front of reporters that Israel’s operation in Gaza will likely take “more than several months.” Gallant’s envisioned timeline has been met with mixed reactions from US officials. State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller told reporters on Monday, December 11, that “we do not want to see it take weeks” before Israel wraps up its operations, only to later backtrack and tell reporters that “this is Israel’s military campaign. They are the ones conducting the campaign. It is up to them to make assessments about how long it will take and where they stand in accomplishing their goals.” But while US officials have discussed the need to transition to lower-intensity operations with the Israelis, it appears that the administration is prepared for the war to continue for months.

With an unclear timeline on Israel’s war, pressure on the Biden administration to respond to the rising levels of civilian harm are increasing. Early in the week, the administration was pressed on a recent Washington Post report about Israel’s use of US-supplied white phosphorous. The usage of white phosphorous is restricted under international law, which holds that it cannot be fired at or used in close proximity to a populated civilian area. Addressing the issue, NSC’s John Kirby told reporters that the administration has seen the reports and is “certainly concerned about that.” In addition to white phosphorous, US officials also addressed questions relating to videos that showed Israeli forces rounding up and stripping Palestinian detainees. State Department officials called the videos “deeply disturbing” and alerted reporters that the United States is “seeking more information, both about the nature of the images and of course why they’re public in the first place.”

Biden: Israel Losing Global Support

But perhaps the biggest headline of the week came from President Joe Biden. Reacting to a recent and overwhelming vote at the United Nations calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Biden told a room full of supporters at a campaign reception that Israel is starting to lose support globally due to the “indiscriminate bombing that takes place.” Biden’s use of the word “indiscriminate” is noteworthy given the term’s legal significance. Under international law, indiscriminate attacks are expressly prohibited. However, US officials were quick to downplay the president’s comments, suggesting that his use of “indiscriminate” was a case of imprecise language rather than a formal assessment of Israel’s potential violation of international law. The State Department clarified that “what the President was referring to is that large-scale bombing campaigns, even when carried out with the best of intentions and even when carried out against legitimate military targets, can lead to the unfortunate loss of civilian lives, which we have seen all too often in this conflict.” However, these “best of intentions” were brought under additional scrutiny by Friday as reports emerged of a US intelligence assessment that found that nearly half of the Israeli air-to-ground munitions dropped on Gaza have been imprecise “dumb bombs.” The assessment, compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, found that about 40-45% of the 29,000 such bombs Israel has used have been unguided.

The mounting civilian death toll in Gaza has prompted new activity from Congress, led by Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) resolution under the Foreign Assistance Act to force a debate on Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza. The Foreign Assistance Act prohibits security assistance to any government “which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” Sanders’ resolution, if passed and signed into law, would request a report from the State Department report on “any violations of internationally recognized human rights caused by indiscriminate or disproportionate military operations in Gaza, as well as the blanket denial of basic humanitarian needs,” and it would seek information on actions the United States has taken to limit civilian risk caused by Israel’s war. Once it receives the report, Congress would then be able to enact changes to condition, reduce, or terminate security assistance to Israel. Also pushing the issue of civilian protection, a new letter sent by 19 representatives to President Biden urged the administration to address the worsening humanitarian crisis, particularly as it relates to pregnant women and to babies.

Despite such concerns, US support for Israel’s war is not likely to waver any time soon. Administration officials and most of Congress continue to eschew any call for a ceasefire, instead reiterating support for targeted humanitarian pauses that would allow for the release of additional hostages and delivery of aid to Palestinians.


I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Congress Sends Defense Bill to President’s Desk. The House and Senate advanced a compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2024, sending the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk after months of negotiation. The policy and funding package sets an $886 billion budget for the Pentagon.

Senator Blackburn Introduces Bill Stipulating Conditions on Rejoining the JCPOA. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced S.3461, a bill to impose certain requirements in relation to the renegotiation or reentry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or other agreement relating to Iran’s nuclear program. JCPOA, commonly known as the “Iran Nuclear Deal,” was an accord signed in 2015 that placed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

Senator Paul Introduces Resolution to Disapprove Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced S.J.Res.53, a joint resolution to formally disapprove of the State Department’s recently proposed arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Senator Cotton Introduces Resolution to Curb Pro-Palestine Activism. Congress continued its push to delegitimize pro-Palestine activism, headlined by Senator Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) S.Res.497, which holds that the popular slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is antisemitic and a call for genocide.

Senator Hagerty Introduces Bill to Target UNRWA Funding. Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) introduced S.3493, a bill to require certification prior to obligation of funds for UNRWA. Hagerty has a history of trying to end funding for UNRWA, having previously accused it of being tied to terrorism. Despite Hagerty’s bill, the Biden administration has maintained support for UNRWA’s work on the ground and has called for other countries to increase their levels of support to the agency.

Representatives Bera and Kim Introduce Resolution Calling for Aid to Palestinians in Gaza. Representatives Ami Bera (D-CA) and Andy Kim (D-NJ) introduced H.Res.935, a resolution “calling for the safe, timely, and sufficient delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians in the Gaza Strip.” The resolution also calls for unimpeded humanitarian access to Gaza, proper oversight on the aid delivered, and the renewal of a humanitarian pause. Shortly after the resolution’s introduction, it was announced that an additional aid route into Gaza would be opened at the Kerem Shalom Crossing.

Bipartisan Bill Introduced to Strengthen US-Israeli Intelligence Sharing. Representatives Jason Crow (D-CO), Mike Walz (R-FL), Austin Scott (R-GA), and Ami Bera (D-CA) introduced H.R.6694. The bill would require a report to examine Hamas’s October 7 attack and US intelligence sharing relationship with Israel.

Congress Sees Bicameral Effort to Strike Iran Financing. Companion bills S.3527 and H.R.6840 were introduced by Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) and Representative French Hill (R-AR) respectively. The bills seek to prevent the Secretary of the Treasury from engaging in transactions involving the exchange of Special Drawing Rights issued by the IMF that are held by Iran.

House Passes Resolution Condemning Anti-Semitism on College Campuses. The House agreed to H.Res.927, a resolution to condemn anti-Semitism on college campuses and the recent testimonies of university presidents at a House committee hearing.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Call for Independent Investigation into Hamas’s Use of Sexual Violence. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ben Cardin (D-MD) led 32 bipartisan colleagues in a letter to Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres. In the letter, the lawmakers urged the UN to launch an investigation into sexual violence committed by Hamas and alleged that the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too biased to investigate Hamas’s crimes. Days later, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who did not sign Senator Cardin’s letter, introduced S.Res.505, a resolution condemning Hamas for using sexual violence as a weapon against the people of Israel.

Senator Warren Seeks Clarity on Suppression of Palestine-related Content on Meta. Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, regarding reports that the company is suppressing and/or mistranslating Palestine-related content. Senator Warren addressed reports that Meta has manipulated content filters to apply stricter standards to content from Palestine as compared to the rest of the world. Warren reaffirmed the importance of user protection against discrimination based on national origin, religion, and other protected characteristics and mentioned the possibility of further legislative action.

3) Hearings and Briefings

HFAC Holds Markup on Various Measures. On December 13, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a markup to consider measures regarding sanctions against Hamas and terrorism, among other things. The measures included H.R.5613, which deals with the imposition of sanctions, and H.R.3016, a bill to amend the Anti-Boycott Act of 2018.

House Financial Services Committee Holds Hearings on Iran. On December 12, the House Financial Services Subcommittee on National Security, Illicit Finance and International Financial Institutions held a hearing on energy sanctions on Iran and other countries. The hearing considered financial crimes enforcement, illicit financing, and counterterrorism. On December 13, the subcommittee held another hearing on Iran that focused on the Islamic Republic’s support of terrorist groups.


II. Executive Branch

1) White House

NSA Sullivan Meets Meets with Regional Officials. Following his meetings with the Israeli war cabinet, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Sullivan and Abbas discussed the situation in Gaza, joint efforts to promote stability in the West Bank, and the Biden administration’s commitment to a two-state solution. After the meeting, Sullivan travelled to the Gulf, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman and discussed the Israel-Hamas conflict, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and opportunities to deepen US-Saudi economic and technological cooperation. The officials also discussed Saudi-Israeli normalization. Sullivan later met with Emirati National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi to discuss various bilateral and regional matters, including the situations in Gaza and Sudan.

President Biden Discusses NATO, Gaza with Turkish President Erdoğan, Talks NATO Accession. President Joe Biden spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, stressing the importance of Sweden acceding to NATO as soon as possible. President Biden and President Erdoğan also discussed the ongoing situation in Gaza.

President Biden Releases Statement After Passing of Amir of Kuwait. President Joe Biden released a statement after the death of Kuwait’s ruler Emir Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah. President Biden mourned the Emir’s passing, discussing his work to build peace and stability in the Middle East. Following the statement, the president announced the designation of a Presidential Delegation to pay respects. The delegation includes senior State Department and DoD officials.

2) State Department

Secretary Blinken Meets with Iraqi PM, Discusses Attacks on US Personnel and Embassy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia` al-Sudani and condemned the recent attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad and on US forces in Iraq and Syria. Secretary Blinken welcomed the Iraqi government’s pledge to investigate the incidents and hold the perpetrators accountable.

State Department Opens ‘Coalition for Climate Entrepreneurship’ Hub in Marrakech. The State Department announced the opening of a Coalition for Climate Entrepreneurship (CCE) Hub in Marrakech, Morocco. According to the State Department, the CCE Hub is “makerspace that will provide climate-focused entrepreneurs access to the hardware, software, community, and resources they need to… bring low-carbon solutions to the market.”

Biden Administration Blocks Shipment of Rifles to Israel Over West Bank Settler Violence. According to unnamed US officials in the Wall Street Journal, the Biden administration is delaying the shipment of more than 27,000 US-made rifles intended for Israeli police forces over concerns that they could fall in the hands of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Three cases containing the firearms have reportedly waited more than a month without the Biden administration’s notification to Congress of the transfer.

State Department Releases Statement on Sudan. The State Department released a statement, urging the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan to cease their advance and refrain from attacking Wad Medani. Wad Medani has been a safe haven for internally displaced Sudanese and a hub for international humanitarian relief efforts in the country.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Responds to Houthi Attack on Norwegian Oil Tanker. On December 11, the Houthis insurgents in Yemen fired a land-based cruise missile at the STRINDA, a Norwegian commercial tanker delivering crude oil to an Israeli port terminal. The USS Mason, a Navy destroyer, responded to the attack and reported no casualties. The Mason subsequently responded to another attack, an attempted hijacking, on December 13, also downing a UAV drone launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. Additional UAV and ballistic missile attacks on vessels followed on Friday. The Department of Defense has said that it will continue to take escalation in the Red Sea seriously, calling the attacks from Houthi forces “destabilizing” and a “flagrant violation of international law.” News of an expanded maritime protection force involving Arab states is expected to be announced this week.

CENTCOM Commander Visits Egypt and Jordan. From December 11 to 12, CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla met with senior military leadership in Egypt and Jordan. General Kurilla’s meetings dealt with “the current security concerns in the CENTCOM region.” General Kurilla later travelled to Iraq and Syria, where he met with key leaders and partners and US forces to discuss the current security situation in the two countries. General Kurilla then travelled to Israel, meeting with senior IDF and intelligence officials.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Announces Fourth Round of Sanctions on Hamas Since October 7. On October 14, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed a fourth round of sanctions on Hamas since its October 7 attack on Israel. In collaboration with the United Kingdom, the sanctions target Hamas officials and facilitators. The State Department announced concurrent sanctions against Hamas, reaffirming the United States’ “commitment to dismantling networks that support Hamas funding streams as part of our continuous effort to prevent and deter its terrorist activity.”

5) United States Agency for International Development

Administrator Power Meets with President of Somalia. Administrator Samantha Power met with Somalian President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to discuss Somalia’s stability, stabilizing regions liberated from al-Shabaab, and helping Somalia adapt to climate change.