Washington Policy Weekly: US Officials Fail to End Civilian Deaths in Southern Gaza


US Urges Consideration for Civilian Safety as Israel Continues Operations in Southern Gaza

Throughout last week, US officials reiterated their desire for Israel to take steps toward protecting the civilian population in Gaza during its current military campaign. State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller told reporters that Secretary of State Antony Blinken “said last week that [the war] cannot be prosecuted in the same way it was in the north.” According to Secretary Blinken, Israel must adhere to the “imperative of maximizing efforts to protect civilians.” To do so, the Biden administration has sought assurances from Israel that it will launch more narrowly focused operations in southern Gaza by evacuating neighborhoods and establishing deconfliction areas. When asked to evaluate whether Israel has heeded the United States’ pressure to operate with greater care for civilian life, Miller said that it is “too early to make a definitive assessment ” but added that the State Department is encouraged by “early observations of differences from previous operations in the north.” However, by week’s end, Secretary Blinken acknowledged that “there does remain a gap between exactly what I said when I was there [in Israel], the intent to protect civilians, and the actual results that we’re seeing on the ground,” suggesting that US officials want to see further progress made on the issue.

These concerns were also articulated by several joint statements from Democrats in Congress. A letter signed by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tim Kaine (D-VA), both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) called for closer oversight of Israel’s use of US weapons. The senators’ letter to President Biden seeks commitments that such weapons will not be used to cause preventable civilian harm. A similar letter led by 13 Democrats on the House Committee on Armed Services, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs expressed concerns over Israel’s current operations, declaring the “need for a strategic approach that works toward a political resolution.”

The worsening humanitarian situation has since spurred an increase in US assistance. According to the White House, the administration continues to be “mindful of the extreme humanitarian suffering inside Gaza, and we’re doing everything we can to alleviate that.” USAID announced an additional $21 million in humanitarian assistance to support Gaza’s health system, which has been decimated during the war, bringing total US support for the relief effort to more than $100 million. The agency also organized the delivery of food assistance and medical supplies brought over by US military aircrafts. While the Biden administration has expressed interest in revisiting a humanitarian pause to allow for a surge of humanitarian aid, a bilateral ceasefire remains out of the question. US officials made this position clear over the weekend as the United States used its veto power (once more) in the United Nations Security Council to block the passage of a resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. The vote had been forced by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres rare invocation of Article 99 of the United Nations Charter, which enables the Secretary General to convene a Security Council meeting if a matter is deemed threatening to international peace and security.

Congress Deliberates Biden’s National Security Supplemental Request

Last week, Congress continued its negotiations on President Biden’s national security supplemental request. Democrats and Republicans have been trying to resolve their differences over the request for weeks, which includes funding for Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan, and the southern border. With pressure coming from Biden himself, White House officials added that “It’s time for Congress to fund Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorists, Ukraine’s right to defend itself against Russian aggression, and the United States to secure our border and stop the flow of fentanyl into the country.”

In Congress, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) joined the administration’s push by urging her colleagues to take up the bipartisan supplemental funding package, voicing her support for Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) decision to allow Senate Republicans to include amendments that address whatever concerns they have. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) reiterated Senator Murray’s call, stating that it “would be irresponsible, legislatively, for my Republican colleagues to decide that they’re going to go home to celebrate the holidays when our allies continue to be involved in existential fights that relate directly to America’s national security.” But other members, like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have expressed reservations about appropriating additional funds for Israel to continue its current military strategy. In a statement on the issue, Sanders argued that “it would be absolutely irresponsible to provide an additional $10.1 billion in unconditional military aid that will allow the Netanyahu government to continue its current inhumane military approach.” The Senator continued, “Israel’s indiscriminate approach is deeply offensive to most Americans, is in violation of US and international law, and undermines the prospects for lasting peace and security.” He, however, is not yet in support of a bilateral ceasefire.

Lawmakers will continue their negotiations this week as they work toward a bipartisan bill that meets the president’s request. To secure Republican approval, such a bill would likely include additional funding and changes to the southern border policy. While Republicans are supportive of delivering assistance to Israel, previously introducing a standalone bill to do so, many continue to express reservations about Biden’s current request as proposed. Senate Democrats have also declared their intention to offer an amendment that would require that the use of supplemental aid comply with US and international law.

In the meantime, the Biden administration approved an emergency sale to Israel of nearly 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition worth more than $106 million. The sale will bypass the typical congressional review process for foreign military sales under the Arms Export Control Act, as amended. A press release accompanying the announcement stated that “The United States is committed to the security of Israel, and it is vital to U.S. national interests to assist Israel to develop and maintain a strong and ready self-defense capability. This proposed sale is consistent with those objectives.”

Congress and Pro-Palestine Activism

US lawmakers continued their efforts to stymie pro-Palestine activism last week, headlined by the passage of H.Res.894. The resolution strongly condemns the rise of antisemitism both in the United States and around the world but departs from previous resolutions in explicitly stating that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” Addressing the resolution, Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY) delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor to voice his concerns with the measure. Representative Nadler, who is Jewish, described the equating of anti-Zionism and antisemitism as “intellectually disingenuous or just factually wrong.” Nevertheless, the resolution overwhelmingly passed by a vote of 311-14, with 92 representatives abstaining, Nadler included.

In addition to the passage of H.Res.894, Congress also saw the introduction of H.R.6578, a bill to establish a “Commission to Study Acts of Antisemitism in the United States.” The bill would create a congressional committee that would hold hearings, take testimony, and receive evidence on the issue of antisemitism. The Commission would have broad subpoena power to bring witnesses before the committee but disallows persons brought before it from using their 5th Amendment right not to incriminate themselves.

Separate from the pieces of legislation, the House also held separate hearings that dealt with the issue of pro-Palestine activism. The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government held a hearing on December 5 on Oversight of the Department of Justice (DoJ) Civil Rights Division. Subcommittee Chairman Chip Roy (R-TX) opened the hearing by accusing the DoJ of “standing idly by, while Jewish Americans have their civil rights violated by radical pro-Palestinian protesters.” The hearing also addressed rising levels of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia in the United States. Also on December 5, the House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on “Campus Antisemitism Accountability.” The hearing saw testimonies from the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT, as members questioned the university presidents about pro-Palestine student protests in the wake of October 7.

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

HFAC Chairman and Representative Moran Introduce Bill Targeting Tech Transfers to Iran. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Representative Nathaniel Moran (R-TX) introduced H.R.6603, the No Technology for Terror Act. The bill would extend the “foreign direct product rule” to Iran, which would “[restrict] the re-export of transfer of US originated items from one foreign country to Iran,” including drone components such as “cameras, lasers, and sensors.”

Representative De La Cruz Introduces Bill Requiring Report on Hezbollah in Latin America. Representative Monica De La Cruz (R-TX) introduced H.R.6589, the Prevent the Financing of Terrorism Through the Drug Trade Act. The bill would require the Secretary of the Treasury to submit a report to Congress on Hezbollah’s financial networks in Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The bill would also add Hamas as a “primary threat” for the Treasury’s National Terrorist Financing Risk Assessment report.

Senate Passes Resolution Affirming Importance of US-Israel Economic Relationship. On December 6, the Senate unanimously consented to resolution S.Res.445, which “[recognizes] the importance of the economic relationship between the United States and Israel” and affirms that trade is a tool to support the Israeli economy during Israel’s conflict with Hamas.

Representative Gaetz Introduces Bill to Cut US-Saudi Military Cooperation. Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) introduced H.R.6626, the Saudi Arabia December 6, 2019, Anti-Terror and Accountability Act. The bill is a response to a shooting carried out by a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force at the Naval Air Station (NAS) in Pensacola, Florida. If enacted, the bill would withdraw US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, halt US-Saudi officer exchange programs, prohibit weapon and munition exports to Saudi Arabia, and authorize victims of the NAS attack to seek damages from the Saudi government.

House Passes Resolution ‘Strongly Condemning’ Rise of Antisemitism in the United States and Abroad. On December 5, the House passed H.Res.894, a resolution “strongly condemning” the rise of antisemitism both in the United States and around the world. Notably, the resolution explicitly states that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” The resolution passed the House 311-14, with 92 representatives abstaining.

Bill Introduced to Deny Entry to Persons Involved in October 7 Attacks. Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA) introduced H.R.6679, a bill which would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to deny entry to any foreign person who “carried out, participated in… or otherwise facilitated the attacks against Israel.”

Representative Roy Introduces Bill to Leave the United Nations. Representative Chip Roy (R-TX) introduced H.R.6645, the Disengaging Entirely From the United Nations Debacle (DEFUND) Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would withdraw the United States from the United Nations, close the headquarters in New York, and cut payments to the organization. The companion bill to H.R.6645 is S.3428, introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT).

2) Personnel and Correspondence

HFAC Chairman Responds to Houthi Attacks. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) responded to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, accusing the Biden administration of appeasing and enabling the Houthis in Yemen. Chairman McCaul called for the US government to “get serious about actually responding” to the Houthis by designating the group as a foreign terrorist organization.

3) Hearings and Briefings

SFRC Holds Hearing on Transnational Repression. On December 6, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing on transnational repression, covering examples from Iran, China, Russia, Turkey, and Egypt, among other countries. In his opening statement, SFRC Chairman Ben Cardin (D-MD) emphasized the risk that transnational repression poses to human rights activists and diaspora communities around the globe. Chairman Cardin announced that he would introduce further legislation to address this growing issue.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

G7 Reiterates Support for Israel, Blames Hamas for End of Truce. On December 6, the leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) addressed the Israel-Hamas conflict. Members reiterated their support for Israel, blamed Hamas for the end of the recent “humanitarian pause,” and urged the immediate release of all hostages without preconditions. The G7 also expressed concern over the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, condemned settler violence in the West Bank, and called on regional actors such as Iran and Hezbollah to cease “de-stabilizing activities.”

White House Officials Discuss Crimes Against Women in Hamas Attack. White House officials met with Israel’s Chair of the Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children to discuss President Joe Biden’s commitment to address sexual violence perpetrated since October 7. Independent investigators are still trying to verify such accounts, which have been provided by the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli officials. Nevertheless, White House and State Department officials jointly condemned recent reports of sexual violence committed by Hamas members on October 7. State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller told reporters on Tuesday that the Department has seen evidence of sexual assault during the October 7 attack. Though Miller said State has not made an independent assessment on the matter, he affirmed that Hamas has committed rape and “we have no reason at all to doubt those reports.” Miller also suggested that the reason Hamas has yet to release some women hostages is “they don’t want those women to be able to talk about what happened to them during their time in custody.” On Wednesday, White House officials echoed the State Department’s messaging, with NSC’s John Kirby stating that “it’s safe to assume that [they’re] still using sexual violence as a weapon.”

2) State Department

Special Envoy for Yemen Travels to the Gulf. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to the Gulf “in the midst of Iranian and Houthi attacks on international shipping threatening almost two years of joint progress to end the war in Yemen.” During his visit, Special Envoy Lenderking worked with the United Nations, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and other international partners to discuss the necessary steps to secure an end to the war in Yemen and to prevent regional escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Special Envoy for Global Youth Issues Travels to Qatar. Special Envoy for Global Youth Issues Abby Finkenauer traveled to Doha, Qatar to meet with Qatari officials and “emerging leaders” to discuss civic participation, women’s social empowerment, and environmental protection.

State Department Makes War Crimes Determination in Sudan. On December 6, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that members of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Secretary Blinken’s announcement came after the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned three officials of the former Omar al-Bashir regime for “undermining the peace, security, and stability of Sudan.” In response to Secretary Blinken’s determination, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) expressed hope that “the Biden administration’s recent actions indicate a departure from the previous policy approach,” which the pair deemed weak and ignorant of “crucial dynamics.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ben Cardin (D-MD) agreed that “impunity has characterized the conflict in Sudan for far too long,” but welcomed the State Department’s designations and called for the Biden administration to “immediately name a high-level Special Envoy” for Sudan. Finally, USAID Administrator Samantha Power called on the SAF and RSF to end all hostilities and allow “unhindered humanitarian access” to enter Sudan.

Secretary Blinken Restricts Visas for West Bank Settlers and their Families. On December 5, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a new visa restriction policy for Israelis that “[targets] individuals believed to have been involved in undermining peace, security, or stability in the West Bank, including through committing acts of violence” against Palestinian citizens.

US and Algeria Hold Joint Military Dialogue. From December 4 to 6, Deputy Assistant of Defense for African Affairs Jennifer Zakriski and an Algerian military delegation met to discuss cybersecurity, counterterrorism efforts, and information sharing between the two countries. The joint dialogue included a roundtable with commercial defense vendors to “[explore] the diversification of suppliers and technologically advanced systems” in line with US-Algeria security objectives.

US and UAE Double Fund to Help Agricultural Sector Cope with Climate Change. At the 28th United Nations Climate Change conference (COP28), Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri announced that the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate) fund would increase from $8 billion to $17 billion. AIM for Climate is a joint US-UAE fund dedicated to preparing the agricultural sector for the effects of climate change.

US and Italy Provide Updates on Efforts to Defeat the So-Called Islamic State. The Italian government hosted an annual meeting of the political directors of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS, where Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Political Director Pasquale Ferrara and Deputy Special Envoy for the Coalition Ian McCary updated coalition partners on efforts to counter the so-called Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, the Sahel, and Central Asia. Special Envoy McCary emphasized the importance of civilian-led solutions in countering Islamic State activities.

Blinken Meets with Saudi Foreign Minister. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. The officials discussed the humanitarian situation in Gaza, Saudi Arabia’s efforts to secure a durable peace agreement in Yemen, maritime security issues, and joint efforts to end the conflict in Sudan.

3) Department of Defense

Weapons Sales Approved for Saudi Arabi and the UAE. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that approval of a possible weapons sale to Saudi Arabia and the UAE worth $582 million and $85 million, respectively. The sale to Saudi Arabia would modernize the Saudi fleet of surveillance aircraft and the sale to the UAE would provide portable radar systems, 107mm High Explosive rockets, and US government and contractor logistical support.

US Forces Face Attacks in Iraq and Syria. On December 3, the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) used an unmanned aerial system to engage five militants preparing to launch a one-way attack drone near Kirkuk, Iraq. In another event, 15 rockets were fired at the US base Rumalyn Landing Zone in Syria, resulting in no harm to US personnel or equipment. Later in the week, the US Embassy in Baghdad was also subject to an attack. Following the attacks, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia` al-Sudani about threats to Iraqi and US security. Also addressing the incidents, the State Department urged the Iraqi Security Forces to investigate and arrest the perpetrators of the attacks, which are reported to have been committed by Iranian-backed militia groups. Both Secretary Austin and the State Department affirmed that the United States will continue to exercise its “right to self-defense” as needed.

5) United States Agency for International Development

Head of USAID Participates in COP28. Last week, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development Samantha Power participated in the 28th UN Climate Change conference, discussing progress on the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience, public-private partnerships to “mobilize climate finance,” and advancing locally-led solutions to climate change.