The Senate on Tuesday sidestepped an attempt to use a little-known statute to force the State Department to publicly assess whether Israel has been using U.S.-provided weapons to violate Palestinian human rights in the Gaza Strip.
Senators voted, 72-11, to table a motion made by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that would discharge from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee his resolution to direct the State Department to report on whether Israel’s usage of U.S. security assistance complies with international human rights standards.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., made the motion to table Sanders’ motion, averting a floor vote on an issue that many Democrats wanted to avoid. Though many of them acknowledge the civilian cost of Israel’s effort to eliminate the Palestinian militant group Hamas from the Gaza Strip, they also don’t want to be seen as critics of Israel’s response to Hamas’ deadly attack on Oct. 7, 2023.
“This is a simple request for information. That is all this resolution is about. It does not alter aid to Israel in any way. It simply requests a report on how U.S. aid is being used,” Sanders said in a floor speech before the vote. “This is a very modest, common-sense proposal and, frankly, very hard for me to understand why anyone would oppose it.”
Though only a simple majority would have been needed to adopt the privileged resolution and put it into effect, reservations by a sizable number of Democrats and all Republicans to anything seen as official congressional criticism of Israel’s response to the worst terrorist attack in its history and the biggest single-day loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust doomed it. Some 1,200 people were killed in the coordinated Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. The U.S. and the European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.
“I am opposed to the Sanders resolution that would require the U.S. State Department — in 30 days — to produce a comprehensive review of Israel’s actions since 2018 and directly put at risk ongoing U.S. support for Israel while they are at war with Hamas,” Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a statement that also listed multiple concerns he has with the Israeli military’s conduct in its bombardment of Gaza. The result has been a tremendous loss of civilian life and dire shortages of food, fuel and medicine in the Palestinian enclave.
Under a provision known as Section 502B of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, the State Department, if requested by a chamber of Congress, would have one month to report on the human rights practices of a country receiving U.S. security assistance or the aid would be suspended — unless Congress votes to continue the aid.
“I will continue raising these issues directly with Israeli officials and the Biden administration,” Coons said. “I do not, however, believe that risking the suspension of all U.S. assistance or publicly rebuking Israel in a way that could embolden its enemies will address these concerns, nor will it improve the humanitarian situation.”
Roughly 24,300 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October, 75 percent of them women and children, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry.
“The resolution brought forward by Sen. Sanders is little more than performative, performative left-wing politics,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said during Tuesday floor remarks. “It is not about authorizing a report of aid to Israel. It’s not even about human rights. It’s about tying the hands of a close ally locked in a necessary battle.”
Former longtime State Department official Josh Paul, who resigned last fall as director of congressional and public affairs within the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs over disagreements with the Biden administration’s unconditional military assistance to Israel, said in a statement that adoption of the Sanders resolution would aid the administration’s diplomatic efforts to push Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilian lives.
“By invoking Section 502B, Sen. Sanders is simply requesting that the administration take an honest look at our partner, Israel’s actions, and our own requirements under the law,” Paul said. “As such, his colleagues in the Senate who are confident that Israel is acting proportionately and in accordance with international law should have no issue with supporting this resolution.”
The Senate vote comes as post-Oct. 7 emotions are still running high in and around Capitol Hill. Efforts to sway lawmaker and public opinion around the events unfolding in Israel and the Palestinian territories show no sign of abating.
On Tuesday, roughly 130 pro-Palestinian activists were arrested for illegally protesting inside the Cannon House Office Building, which was emptier than normal after the House canceled votes because of inclement weather.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Cardin were scheduled to host a bipartisan press conference Wednesday with the family members of some of the hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza to mark over 100 days of their captivity.