Washington Policy Weekly: New Voices in Congress Join Call for Ceasefire in Gaza

Pushback on Biden Policy on Gaza

Criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the war on Gaza ramped up as new voices joined the push for a ceasefire. More than 500 US officials across 40 government agencies signed an open letter to the president encouraging him to demand one. In Congress, a new letter signed by 24 members called on Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to negotiate a bilateral ceasefire. Led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the members outlined concern for Israel’s ongoing operations, which have killed more than 12,300 Palestinians, nearly half of whom are children. Shortly after, two additional representatives, Sarah Jacobs (D-CA) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD), joined the call. Adding to the pressure, the president, Secretary Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III were also subject to a federal complaint that accuses them of being complicit “in the Israeli government’s genocidal campaign.” The suit was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Palestinian human rights organizations, Palestinians in Gaza, and US citizens with relatives in Gaza. It argues that the Biden administration has helped Israel by providing unconditional military and diplomatic support.

These concerns were echoed by Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) on Thursday as she announced the introduction of a joint resolution to block weapons sales “used to fund war crimes in Gaza.” The resolution disapproves of the proposed export license for $320 million in weapons to Israel, which Omar asserted have been used against hospitals and schools in violation of international law. Responding to accusations of the administration’s complicity, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters that he “is not in a position to be judge and jury” to determine if Israel has abided by the laws of war, but maintained that the administration continues to convey its concern for civilians in Gaza to Israeli officials while working to free hostages.

Gaza’s Hospitals Become a Military and Political Battleground

The issue of Gaza’s hospitals took center stage as Israel began operating inside al-Shifa hospital on Wednesday. President Biden offered his approval of Israel’s operations in al-Shifa on Thursday, describing the operation as a “different story” to what “was occurring before, an indiscriminate bombing.” The president’s choice of words to describe Israel’s campaign in Gaza to date prompted a series of questions to State Department and DoD officials, who downplayed the comments and reiterated that the president prefers that fighting not take place “where innocent people, helpless people, sick people are simply trying to get the medical care that they deserve.” Still, US officials and the president have maintained that hospitals in Gaza are reasonable targets for Israel’s forces on the ground, citing intelligence that “Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) use some hospitals in the Gaza Strip, including al-Shifa, and tunnels underneath them to conceal and to support their military operations and to hold hostages.”

Over the weekend, President Biden reiterated his stance against a ceasefire. In a statement, the president declared that a ceasefire would only enable Hamas to prepare for further attacks against Israel, adding that a “ceasefire is not peace.” Biden continued his push for the release of hostages, which was described as a precondition for any extended pause in the war. Also in the statement, Biden declared that “There must be no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, no reoccupation, no siege or blockade, and no reduction in territory.”

Biden’s Funding Request in Limbo

Lawmakers expressed their support for a generous funding package to Israel, headlined by a bicameral and bipartisan trip to Israel during the week, but the details of such a package remain contested. White House and State Department officials made repeated calls to Congress to pass the supplemental funding request that would provide aid to Israel in addition to the administration’s other priorities in Ukraine, Taiwan, and the southern border. Republican-led efforts to decouple aid for Israel from these other priorities failed in the Senate with Senate Democrats blocking a surprise effort to force a vote on a House-passed Israel aid bill. Led by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee Patty Murray (D-WA), Senate Democrats urged Congress to pass a bill that meets the president’s full request. Over the weekend, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) released a statement declaring that there is a need for conditioning US aid to Israel. Senator Sanders emphasized the need for an end to Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” campaign, among other things, as some of the conditions he would like to see imposed. Notably, however, Sanders has not yet called for a ceasefire.

Efforts to Mitigate Conflict Expansion Continue

Preparations continue to be made for a potential regional conflict. Senior officials from the White House and State Department visited countries throughout the Middle East to talk with partners about developments on the ground and efforts to mitigate the war’s expansion. In response to continued airstrike exchanges between US and Iranian proxy forces, the DoD stated on Tuesday that the administration does not want to see a wider conflict. However, White House officials restated that “if Iranian proxies continue to strike American forces, we will continue to respond.” US forces have launched several targeted airstrikes in eastern Syria in recent weeks, which the White House has justified as self-defense permitted under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Senator Graham Urges Biden to Consider War with Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and eight colleagues introduced S.Res.462, a resolution supporting President Biden’s efforts to “deter the Islamic Republican of Iran, the IRGC, Hamas, Hezbollah, Ansar Allah, PIJ, and other proxies from expanding the ongoing conflict” in Gaza. The resolution also encourages President Biden to “keep all options on the table,” including military force. Notably, Senator Graham recently endorsed striking targets inside Iran if the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to threaten US troops.

Eleven Bills Advanced and New Sanctions Announced Targeting Hamas and Iran Finances. The House Financial Services Committee advanced 11 bills financially targeting Iran and Hamas to the full House. The bills that passed committee include measures to freeze the $6 billion in Iranian assets that President Biden exchanged for detained Americans (H.R.5945 and H.R.6000), to expand financial sanctions against Iran and investigate Hamas’s financial networks (H.R.5921, H.R.5923, and H.R.6322), and to oversee President Biden’s implementation of US sanctions (H.R.6015). Later in the week, the State Department and Department of the Treasury announced concomitant sanctions targeting Hamas-affiliated individuals and entities. In coordination with the United Kingdom, the sanctions designate key Hamas officials and the mechanisms by which Iran provides support to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Resolution to Consider Bill of HFAC Chairman Fails in the House. The House failed to pass H.Res.869, a resolution from the House Rules Committee providing for the consideration of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul’s (R-TX) H.R.5961, the No Funds for Iranian Terrorism Act, and one other bill. A motion to reconsider H.Res.869 was accepted, however. Bills considered under a resolution from the Rules Committee only require a simple majority to pass the House and would be advantageous to Republicans seeking to advance legislative priorities.

House Bill Introduced to Remove Qatar’s Designation as a Major Non-NATO Ally. Representative Andrew Ogles (R-TN) introduced H.R.6431, a bill that would require President Biden to strip Qatar of its Major Non-NATO Ally status pending the extradition of Hamas leaders from Doha. The bill follows an October 12 letter from Representatives Ogles and Andy Biggs (R-AZ) to Qatari Ambassador Meshal Al Thani, which urges Qatar to condemn Hamas, extradite its leaders, and freeze $6 billion in Iranian assets.

Senate Bill Introduced to Sanction Iranian Missile Development. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced S.3334, the No ICBMs or Drones for Iran Act. The bill would reestablish sanctions on Iranian missile development, space launch vehicles, and drones. The House companion bill of S.3334, H.R.6453, was also introduced.

Senate Joint Resolution Introduced to Stop US Strikes in Syria. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced S.J.Res.51, a resolution “directing the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in Syria that have not been authorized by Congress.”

Senate Bill Introduced to Compensate US Victims of Libyan State-Sponsored Terrorism. Senator Susan Colins (R-ME) introduced S.3336, which would compensate American victims of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

SFRC Ranking Member and HFAC Chairman Criticize Biden Administration Strategy in Sudan. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) criticized the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts with Saudi Arabia to resolve the ongoing war in Sudan, suggesting that President Biden engage “with a broader array of regional and international partners” in Africa. Addressing the war, the State Department again condemned escalating violence and human rights violations in Sudan, focusing on recent attacks by the Rapid Support Forces in West, Central, and South Darfur. The Department declared the need for a ceasefire and called on the warring parties to work toward a sustainable solution to the conflict.

Senator Cotton Leads Six Colleagues in Letter to Secretaries Blinken and Yellen, Urges FTO Designation for IRGC-Linked Groups. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) led six Republican colleagues in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, asking them to designate Iraq-based groups linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as foreign terrorist organizations (FTO).

3) Hearings and Briefings

House Holds Hearing on Worldwide Threats to the Homeland. The House  Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement and Intelligence held a hearing on threats to the United States. The hearing featured testimonies from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray, and National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid. Members on the committee discussed threats to the United States posed by Iran and foreign terrorist organizations, among other topics.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Announces New Actions to Counter Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. On November 14, the White House released a fact sheet detailing its response to the national rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia since the October 7th Hamas attacks in Israel. Among other federal agencies, the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Education have produced educational resources on how to address and prevent hate crimes both inside and outside of educational institutions.

2) State Department

Assistant Secretary for Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Travels to Morocco. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Todd Robinson travelled to Morocco and Algeria to engage with security, justice, and law enforcement officials. Assistant Secretary Robinson’s trip focused on “[advancing] shared interests of security, stability, and economic prosperity,” as well as communicating the importance of healthy justice systems for good governance.

Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Travels to France and Egypt to Discuss Gaza. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya completed a trip to France and Egypt. In France, Under Secretary Zeya participated in an international humanitarian conference reviewing the humanitarian response in Gaza. In Egypt, Zeya joined Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues David Satterfield and USAID officials in a meeting with Egyptian and United Nations representatives to discuss ongoing efforts to send aid into Gaza.

US Special Envoy for Yemen Travels to the Gulf. US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to the Gulf to “advance ongoing UN-led peace efforts in Yemen and support regional coordination to reach a durable end to the conflict.” Special Envoy Lenderking met with Yemeni, Saudi, Omani, and Emirati officials to discuss securing a durable ceasefire in Yemen.

US, Italy, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia Convene to Talk Defeating ISIS. The Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS Africa Focus Group, which is co-chaired by the United States, Italy, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, met in Cotonou, Benin. Twenty-eight members of the coalition participated in the meetings, which focused on countering propaganda and illicit financial networks of the so-called Islamic State and improving border security in the Sahel region of Africa, among other countermeasures.

State Department Expresses Growing Concern for Situation in the West Bank. The State Department acknowledged its continued concern for the situation in the occupied West Bank, where attacks on Palestinians from extremist settlers have steadily increased. Since October 7, 963 Palestinians have lost their homes and 197 have been killed. Israeli settler violence in the West Bank was also the subject of a bicameral letter to President Biden led by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Dan Goldman (D-NY). In their letter, the lawmakers highlighted the threat that settler violence poses to “Israel’s near-term security, Palestinian human rights, and long-term peace.” The president addressed some of these concerns in a statement on Sunday, stating that “extremist violence against Palestinians in the West Bank must stop and that those committing the violence must be held accountable.”

3) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Sanctions Six Individuals Affiliated with Iran-aligned Militia Group in Iraq. The Department of the Treasury designated six individuals affiliated with the Iran-aligned groups Kataib Hezbollah (KH) and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) based in Iraq. KH and KSS are funded and supported by Iran and responsible for recent attacks against the United States and partner forces in Iraq and Syria.