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Senators to Biden: Curtail arms to Israel unless Gaza aid expanded

A group of Democratic senators said Israel's restrictions on humanitarian aid entering the Gaza Strip could violate foreign assistance law.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, (D-MD) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) participate in a press conference on Capitol Hill presenting the No War Against Iran Act on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020 in Washington, DC.
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WASHINGTON — A group of Senate Democrats say the continued supply of American weapons to Israel violates the federal law barring military assistance to countries that impede the delivery of US-supported humanitarian aid. 

In a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday, eight senators accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of preventing US-funded aid from reaching the Gaza Strip's civilian population “in a safe and timely manner.” 

US officials have repeatedly called on Israel to let more humanitarian assistance reach the Palestinian enclave, where the United Nations is warning of imminent famine. Aid that does reach Gaza through one of two approved crossings — Rafah and Kerem Shalom — is subject to what relief organizations describe as a convoluted and time-consuming Israeli inspection process. 

The senators’ letter to Biden comes days after he used his annual State of the Union address to urge Israel to “do its part” in expanding aid access to Gaza, where the territory’s Health Ministry estimates more than 31,000 Palestinians have died in Israel’s five-month offensive against Hamas. 

Under US pressure, Israel agreed last week to open a land crossing into northern Gaza, where an estimated 300,000 people are still living amid dire humanitarian conditions. The UN estimates one in six children under two years old in the north suffers from acute malnutrition.

Led by Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the senators called on Biden to invoke a provision in the Foreign Assistance Act that bars US weapons from going to countries that restrict the delivery of US humanitarian assistance. 

“The United States should not provide military assistance to any country that interferes with US humanitarian assistance,” they wrote. “Federal law is clear, and, given the urgency of the crisis in Gaza, and the repeated refusal of Prime Minister Netanyahu to address US concerns on this issue, immediate action is necessary to secure a change in policy by his government.”

On Monday, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters that the United States has not assessed Israel to be impeding the flow of assistance. Miller cited “some modest improvements" in the humanitarian situation in recent days, including Israel facilitating the movement of additional aid convoys from southern Gaza to the territory’s isolated north. 

The United States has joined several other countries in recently dropping food and other aid into Gaza, an effort UN officials and aid experts have criticized as insufficient to meaningfully address the needs of the enclave’s 2.3 million people.  

Biden also announced last week that he ordered the US military to establish a temporary port along Gaza’s Mediterranean coast that will receive large shipments of aid. Its construction could take up to two months, the Pentagon said.  

On Friday, Van Hollen and 12 other left-leaning senators requested the administration provide them with a briefing on the implementation of a recent presidential memorandum requiring Israel and other recipients of US weapons to provide written assurances that those weapons will be used in accordance with international law.