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Senators Urge Biden to Stop Arming Israel, Citing Violation of U.S. Aid Law

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A group of Democratic senators urged President Biden on Monday to stop providing offensive weapons to Israel for the war against Hamas until it lifts restrictions on U.S.-backed humanitarian aid going into Gaza.

In a letter to Mr. Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, and seven Democrats argued that by continuing to arm Israel, Mr. Biden was violating the Foreign Assistance Act, which bars military support from going to any nation that restricts the delivery of humanitarian aid.

It was the latest bid by members of his own party to intensify pressure on Mr. Biden to use his leverage to demand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu change his tactics and mitigate the suffering of Palestinians as the offensive in Gaza drags into its fifth month.

“We urge you to make it clear to the Netanyahu government that failure to immediately and dramatically expand humanitarian access and facilitate safe aid deliveries throughout Gaza will lead to serious consequences, as specified under existing U.S. law,” the group wrote.

Mr. Sanders said it was clear that Mr. Netanyahu’s actions were in breach of the terms of American military aid as set out in the Humanitarian Aid Corridor Act, which is part of the foreign assistance law. The act says that as soon as the president is made aware that a country is blocking or restricting the delivery of American humanitarian assistance, no U.S. military aid can be provided.

“That’s exactly what Israel is doing; they are preventing U.S. humanitarian assistance from getting to the people of Gaza,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview. “They are in violation of the law, and therefore financial aid should be suspended.”

The move is the latest bid by Democrats in Congress to register their discontent with Mr. Netanyahu’s conduct and lean on Mr. Biden to use his power to try to change Israel’s tactics as civilian deaths rise and reports of starvation increase. The letter, written by Senators Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, is signed by some of the Democratic Party’s most progressive members: Senators Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, Peter Welch of Vermont and Tina Smith of Minnesota.

“I hope the president understands that a growing number of members of Congress, and the American people in general, are sick and tired of seeing the destruction of the people of Gaza and the creation of mass starvation,” Mr. Sanders said.

But so far, Congress has shown no ability to use its own leverage to try to change Israel’s behavior. Proponents of restricting military aid or conditioning it to a change in conduct by Mr. Netanyahu lack the votes to win adoption of such measures in either the House or the Senate. That has left them to air their anguish about the conduct of Israel’s offensive and the suffering it has created in Gaza through a series of strongly worded letters that have yielded little action from Mr. Biden.

Last month, the Senate approved an emergency national security aid bill that would send an additional $14.1 billion in military aid to Israel, including $10 billion for offensive weapons for the war against Hamas.

The letter draws a distinction between defensive aid for Israel, such as the Iron Dome, and the military assistance that would go toward furthering Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip.

“Israel has the right to defend itself,” Mr. Sanders said, “but Israel does not have — in any way, shape or form — the right to go to war against the entire Palestinian people.”

For months now, the United Nations and aid groups in the region have accused Israel of either failing to provide safe passage to aid deliveries or preventing vehicles from clearing checkpoints and holding up aid along the border.

Mr. Biden has stopped short of directly laying blame on Mr. Netanyahu for stopping humanitarian assistance, and has continued to provide unequivocal support of Israel’s military operation.

But as the United States finds itself as both the source of offensive weaponry and the provider of relief for those on the receiving end of attacks from those weapons, Mr. Biden has had to come up with ways to circumvent the obstacles preventing assistance from reaching the Palestinian people.

This month, Mr. Biden authorized an airdrop of 38,000 ready-to-eat meals into Gaza, and last week he announced that the U.S. military would build a temporary pier to create a new entry point for aid into the region.

The actions, the senators said, are a tacit admission from the White House that Israel is standing in the way of much-needed food and supplies getting to starved Palestinians.

“People are now dying of starvation, and we need to use all the leverage we’ve got,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “The administration has not used the leverage it has today. I don’t know how many more kids have to starve before we use all the levers of our influence here, but they really need to do more.”

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