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House poised to vote on Israel arms after mixed report on their use

Senate isn't expected to follow suit on the bill

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., left, sponsored the legislation that would seek to prevent the administration from pausing any arms shipments to Israel.
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., left, sponsored the legislation that would seek to prevent the administration from pausing any arms shipments to Israel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congressional reaction to the State Department’s report Friday on security assistance to Israel underlined the gap between Democrats and Republicans over whether the U.S. should use weapons transfers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as leverage to curb the killings of Palestinian civilians.

House Republicans are planning a floor vote this week on draft legislation that would seek to force the administration into continuing weapons transfers to Israel. A vote, expected Wednesday or Thursday, would offer another opportunity to assess the depth of support for Israel’s polices toward the Palestinians, particularly among Democrats, some of whom have objected to a pause in a weapons transfer. 

The bill isn’t expected to move forward in the Senate for political and policy reasons.

The State Department found it “reasonable to assess” that since the start of its Oct. 7 war with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Israel has used U.S.-provided military equipment in ways that violate its international humanitarian law obligations or that go against established best practices to minimize civilian harm. The finding, in a report the Biden administration agreed to provide Congress under its February National Security Memorandum 20, came about a week after Biden paused a weapons shipment to Israel.

The House legislation, sponsored by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., would prohibit funds from fiscal 2024 or earlier from being used “to withhold, halt, reverse, or cancel the delivery of defense articles or defense services” to Israel. It would also order the secretary of State to promptly approve and ensure the delivery, including to Israel’s Public Security Ministry, of “all direct commercial sales of defense articles” for which delivery is “expected” in fiscal 2024 and fiscal 2025.

The bill would also require the administration to deliver to Israel any “withheld” defense articles or defense services.

“It is time to stop trying to appease terrorists and send the necessary weapons to Israel so they can end this war,” Calvert said in a statement last week. Twenty-six House Democrats, just over 12 percent of the caucus signed a letter to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan last week that criticized the pause. The House vote this week would test whether they are willing to back legislation.

The State Department report did little to clear things up. Democrats and independent outside arms control groups said the report evaded hard decisions while Republicans seized on the lack of a conclusive finding about Israel’s conduct to say President Joe Biden was wrong to threaten halting offensive weapons shipments into Israel over its plans to invade the city of Rafah.

The State Department said Monday there would be no change in overall U.S. policy toward arming Israel except for the announced pause of a single shipment of 2,000- and 500-pound bombs. The administration said it took the action out of concern over Israel’s plans to invade Rafah, where over 1 million Palestinians are crammed together in unsafe conditions.

“The report that they put out Friday night, after news deadlines passed, was very clear,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said in a Sunday CBS interview. “There is no evidence that Israel is violating international law. All civilian casualties in Gaza are solely the responsibility of Hamas.”

State Department principal deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said on Monday a big part of why there would be no change to U.S. weapons transfer policy to Israel is because the administration has confidence that Israeli law and the Israeli government can police itself and hold accountable individuals who use U.S.-supplied arms to commit human rights violations.

“I’m disappointed that ultimately the administration failed to take a position in many cases and make the difficult determinations required, including whether Israel violated international law on mitigating civilian harm or facilitating humanitarian aid,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said in a Monday statement. “It is true that in the weeks leading up to the report, the amount of humanitarian aid into Gaza had begun to tick up. But today the aid has once again virtually stopped flowing, demonstrating that Israel has not taken the necessary steps under U.S. and international law to protect civilians during this conflict.”

Humanitarian aid into Gaza has again dried up following the closure last week of the Kerem Shalom and Rafah crossings, the two principal entry points for trucks carrying aid into the enclave since the start of the war. Earlier this month, the lead official for the U.N. World Food Program, Cindy McCain, said a “full-blown famine” has set in in northern Gaza.

Murphy said he would like to see the administration invoke a clause in the memorandum that would require Israel within 45 days to provide fresh assurances it is using U.S.-weapons in ways consistent with international law.

The State Department was last year reported not to have approved the Israeli Public Security Ministry’s request to purchase over 20,000 U.S.-made assault rifles amid concerns the weapons could be distributed to Israeli settlers and used in attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank. The ministry is led by a member of Netanyahu’s coalition government, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who was convicted by Israeli courts of supporting a terrorist organization and incitement to racism.

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