The Biden administration must take steps to increase the oversight of U.S. weapons given to Israel in order to reduce civilian harm in Gaza, argued a group of powerful Democratic senators in a new open letter to President Joe Biden.
“Israel is a U.S. partner, and we must ensure accountability for the use of U.S. weapons we provided to our ally,” wrote the group of lawmakers, which included Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
The letter, while carefully worded to avoid condemning administration policy, is among the strongest statements of concern from Biden’s Senate allies about how he has approached the war. The U.S.-backed Israeli campaign has left more than 16,000 Palestinians dead, 70% of whom were women or children, according to Palestinian officials.
The statement comes as Congress considers a large spending package that includes $14 billion in weapons aid for Israel as well as measures that would waive some transparency requirements for military assistance to the country — a sharp contrast with the detailed information that the Biden administration has shared on its aid to Ukraine.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) announced Wednesday that he plans to introduce an amendment to the bill that would require that all weapons sent through this package be used in accordance with U.S. law and international law, including the law of armed conflict. The proposal would also require Biden to report to Congress on this question, forcing the administration to evaluate Israel’s adherence to U.S. laws and policies.
Sanders, meanwhile, has gone further than his colleagues and said he opposes the package in its current form, arguing that the U.S. should not be helping “the right-wing, extremist Netanyahu government to continue its current military strategy.”
“What the Netanyahu government is doing is immoral, it is in violation of international law, and the United States should not be complicit in those actions,” he argued in a separate letter.
In the Warren-led letter, the lawmakers highlight the dramatic impact that Israel’s bombing campaign has had on Gaza by rattling off a list of alleged human rights violations committed by Israeli forces. Drawing on press reports, the senators say Israel has struck civilians in “safe zones” they were told to flee to, killed well over 100 civilians in attacks on a refugee camp, and targeted hospitals such that it became impossible to provide medical care.
“While these strikes were aimed at Hamas, we have concerns that strikes on civilian infrastructure have not been proportional, particularly given the predictable harm to civilians,” the lawmakers wrote. Sens. Martin Heimrich (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) also signed the missive.
Notably, the letter questions whether the administration has held to its own policies in Gaza, a point raised by numerous experts and former officials over the past two months. They applauded several civilian protection initiatives that Biden has undertaken — including a policy saying the U.S. will not give weapons to anyone who will “more likely than not” use them to violate human rights — but argued that it is “unclear, however, how these different efforts are or will be applied to protect civilians in Gaza.”
“Your administration must ensure that existing guidance and standards are being used to evaluate the reports of Israel using U.S. weapons in attacks that harm civilians in order to more rigorously protect civilian safety during Israel’s operations in Gaza,” they wrote.
The lawmakers also raised concerns about specific weapons that the U.S. continues to provide Israel, including artillery rounds that have been used in allegedly indiscriminate attacks. “The DoD as a whole has yet to define safeguards or issue a statement on how Israel should use U.S. weapons,” the letter notes.
The letter ends with a series of questions for the administration demanding details about what assurances Israel has provided about its use of U.S. weapons as well as an explanation of how the U.S. addresses allegations of civilian harm by Israeli forces.
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