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January 24, 2024

Ceasefire and Regional Escalation on the Hill: A Legislative Outlook

The U.S. Congress has returned to work this month amid continued conflict and turmoil in the Middle East. While some voices in Washington continue to push for outrageous escalation, including calling for bombing Iran, those with level heads are working to end the horrific war between Israel and Palestine and prevent conflict from boiling over into full-blown regional war. Below is a quick summary of where various legislative initiatives stand at this critical juncture:

U.S. Military Aid for Israel

With over 25,000 Palestinians killed, including 10,000 children, in the conflict with Israel that erupted on October 7th, the U.S. Congress may soon begin consideration of a massive supplemental spending bill that would provide Israel and Ukraine with additional military assistance while making potentially significant concessions sought by Republicans regarding U.S. border policy and asylum laws.

However, the road to passage of such a bill is far from straightforward, and a sizable minority of the Democratic caucus has made clear that it supports conditioning additional assistance to Israel on compliance with U.S. and international law.

The Sanders Resolution

Last week, the Senate voted down S.Res. 504, which would have mandated a report from the State Department on Israel’s human rights abuses. Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) introduction of this resolution under Section 502B(c) of the Foreign Assistance Act, which NIAC Action strongly supported, marked a historic and significant step towards scrutinizing and curtailing U.S. military support for any war crimes being committed by Israel. However, only 12 senators backed the resolution, with 72 Senators voting it down. 

The Van Hollen Amendment

However, if the funding supplemental moves to the Senate floor, Senators will get another chance to scrutinize Israel’s rights violations in the Gaza war. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Brian Schatz (D-HI) – all well-regarded legislators – have drafted an amendment that would require that the weapons received by any country under the proposed supplemental – including Israel – are used in accordance with U.S. law, international humanitarian law, and the law of armed conflict. This amendment has gradually garnered more and more support, with 18 Senators – all Democrats – now supporting the measure. Senator Laphonza Butler (D-CA), one of the more recent supporters of the amendment, stated:

“We have a responsibility to make sure civilians and children are never the targets of war and humanitarian assistance is never blocked…Our partners and allies deserve America’s unwavering support, and it is also true that we must hold those nations accountable for what they choose to do with that support.”

If the funding supplemental hits the floor, it will be important to demand that the Senate bring this important amendment up for a vote and that we all work to hold Senators accountable so that U.S. assistance is no longer being used to violate human rights on a mass scale.

Passage of the entire funding package has some significant obstacles. Aside from complications on the Israeli assistance, many critics are concerned the proposal will include language to assuage Republican demands that would permanently gut the U.S. asylum system for foreign nationals fleeing persecution.Yet, Donald Trump has signaled his opposition to the negotiations, significantly reducing the likelihood that it could secure sufficient Republican support to pass through the House of Representatives and become law.

Regional Escalation

Since October 7th, the wider region has seen unprecedented escalations – U.S. military bases and interests have been repeatedly targeted by militias in Iraq and Syria and the U.S. has undertaken its own bombings in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Recent reports indicate that the Biden administration is “crafting plans for a sustained military campaign against the Houthis after ten days of strikes failed to halt their attacks” on commercial shipping transiting the Red Sea. 

NIAC was among the first to warn against unauthorized strikes and escalation in Yemen, pointing out with dozens of other groups that the plan for new bombing in Yemen risks further embroiling the U.S. in the drift to full-blown regional war. Fortunately, Members of Congress are starting to sound the alarm.

Bipartisan Senate Letter on U.S. Campaign Against Houthis

Senators Kaine, Chris Murphy (D-CT), Todd Young (R-IN), and Mike Lee (R-UT) sent a letter to the administration yesterday, underscoring that Congress alone has the Constitutional authority to declare war and asking critical questions about the administration’s legal rationale for its strikes. All these Senators were key to advancing war powers measures to wind down U.S. support for the Saudi war on Yemen and represent a potentially powerful bipartisan bloc that could curtail the current unauthorized military operations in Yemen, with this letter as afirst step.

As the letter states: 

“The Administration has stated that the strikes on Houthi targets to date have not and will not deter the Houthi attacks, suggesting that we are in the midst of an ongoing regional conflict that carries the risk of escalation. While the Houthis and their backers, namely Iran, bear the responsibility for escalation, unless there is a need to repel a sudden attack, the Constitution requires that the United States not engage in military action absent a favorable vote of Congress. We have long advocated for deliberate congressional processes and authorizations for decisions that put servicemembers into harm’s way overseas. No current congressional authorization exists for offensive U.S. military action against the Houthis”.

Likewise, NIAC is among the groups endorsing a similar effort in the House of Representatives.

Additional accountability measures

On the Palestinian and humanitarian front, Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD) have sent a separate letter, signed by 60 lawmakers, to the State Department warning against recent inflammatory calls from Israeli leaders to displace Palestinians from Gaza permanently. The letter urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to affirm the United States’ strong opposition to the forced and permanent displacement of Palestinians from Gaza and to support an increase in humanitarian aid to the region. 

Citing Gaza’s humanitarian crisis that continues to worsen by the day, the members urged the State Department to provide clarity on the supplemental funding request as vague provisions in the request could be interpreted as providing funding for the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza. NIAC was proud to be among the organizations endorsing this letter. As the lawmakers stated:

“Any forced expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza would only exacerbate the trauma and pain Palestinian civilians in Gaza are already experiencing as a result of this conflict and cause more regional tension and conflict for decades to come.”

 

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