Senate Democrats say one thing but do another on foreign aid to Israel

Senator Bernie Sanders, pictured, wants to limit foreign aid to Israel  (Getty Images)
Senator Bernie Sanders, pictured, wants to limit foreign aid to Israel (Getty Images)
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Some Senate Democrats are talking the talk but not walking the walk on foreign aid to Israel.

The US Senate is debating a $95 billion foreign aid package after several months of infighting and delays by their House counterparts. The package would allocate $26.38 billion to fund Israeli defense systems — something progressive Senator Bernie Sanders isn’t too happy about.

Mr Sanders announced this week he is introducing amendments to significantly cut the amount of aid Israel would receive, saying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has created a “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.

Many of Mr Sanders’ Democratic colleagues have expressed similar concerns about civilian deaths and humanitarian aid — but not enough to consider amendments or delay the multi-billion-dollar deal, they told The Independent just minutes before the US Senate voted to strike down the possibility of adding any amendments to the aid package.

“I think it’s beyond belief that, on an issue where the majority of the American people don’t want to continue to support Netanyahu’s war machine slaughter of women and children in Gaza, that we couldn’t even get an amendment to deal with that,” Mr Sanders told The Independent.

On 7 October 2023, Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking another 200 hostages. In response, Israel launched an offensive on Gaza. Since then, Israeli attacks have killed more than 33,400 people, most of them women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry. The United Nations says the territory is on the brink of a “man-made famine”.

Mr Sanders’ amendments would mandate that Israel not receive unfettered military aid for its war campaign in Gaza and would restore funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

As part of the spending bill passed last month, the United States halted funding for UNRWA — the main provider of food, water and shelter to Palestinians — until 2025. The current foreign aid package also prohibits funding for the agency.

Several Democrats told The Independent their priority is to pass the aid package quickly.

In February, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia criticised the Israeli government for its plan to begin a military campaign in Rafah.

“They’re not visibly listening to us to the degree that we think somebody who was relying on us so much should,” he told The Independent at the time.

Yet Mr Kaine told The Independent on Tuesday that he expects the bill to pass through with bipartisan support — and without amendments. Amendments would delay the bill and draw out negotiations even longer by sending it back to the House of Representatives.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, recently called on President Joe Biden to “use all available leverage” to demand a long-term ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

But on Tuesday, he told The Independent that amendments like Mr Sanders’, which could serve as leverage to limit Israel’s offensive in Gaza, aren’t the priority — passing the package as soon as possible is.

Senator Chris Murphy, pictured, hopes to pass the foreign aid bills swiftly (Getty Images)
Senator Chris Murphy, pictured, hopes to pass the foreign aid bills swiftly (Getty Images)

“I’m not interested in sending this bill back to the House of Representatives,” Mr Murphy told The Independent. “So, there’s going to be a lot of amendments on their merits that I would [otherwise] consider, but the priority is getting this bill done.”

Senator Chris van Hollen is in a similar boat. The Democrat from Maryland has previously said he supports a mutual ceasefire and has “deep concerns” about Mr Netanyahu’s government and Israel’s treatment of humanitarian aid workers in Gaza.

But on Tuesday, Mr Van Hollen told The Independent he supports the package as is, since Israeli aid is tied up in legislative terms with aid to Ukraine.

“I said that I will support package because it’s essential to get military assistance to the people of Ukraine in their fight against Putin,” he said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, spoke on the floor just after Mr Sanders announced his now-moot amendments on Tuesday morning.

“The humanitarian crisis unleashed in Gaza is unspeakable, indefensible and we cannot be party to it,” he said. He called for Israel to be held accountable to US law and international standards that dictate the protection of civilians and the delivery of humanitarian aid in wartime.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, pictured, has criticised Israel’s war in Gaza (Getty Images)
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, pictured, has criticised Israel’s war in Gaza (Getty Images)

Mr Durbin may be the first senator to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, but he is not the first senator to question Israel’s adherence to the law.

Last month, former senator Patrick Leahy told The Independent that “the number of civilians who are being injured or killed by US-paid armaments” means Israel is in violation of a series of foreign aid laws named after him. Current Vermont Senator Peter Welch previously told The Independent he agrees.

Three weeks ago, the Israeli Defense Forces killed seven aid workers with the humanitarian non-profit World Central Kitchen. The seven workers were travelling in a three-car convoy branded with the organisation’s logo when the IDF killed them in three separate airstrikes.

Among those killed was 33-year-old Jacob Flickinger, a 33-year-old dual citizen of the US and Canada.

It was later revealed the IDF injured an eighth worker on the same day in an airstrike on the al-Bashir Mosque in Deir al-Balah in Gaza.

The IDF referred to the seven killings as a mistake. President Joe Biden afterwards called for a temporary ceasefire to facilitate the safe delivery of humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

The Senate initially passed the foreign aid package in February, with only Mr Sanders, Mr Welch and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon voting against the bill. After that, it failed to make it through the House of Representatives.

During the weekend, the House passed the foreign aid bill in four different packages. While all 210 Democrats present voted to pass Ukraine aid, 55 Democrats — most of them progressives who have called for a ceasefire in Gaza — voted against giving military aid to Israel.

The bill is the culmination of months of morass, given Republican opposition to supporting to Ukraine, and concerns among left-wing Democrats about Israel’s military actions.