U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Jan. 16, 2024, with photos displayed of children and civilians in Gaza. (Screenshot from U.S. Senate webcast)
The U.S. Senate voted 72-11 Tuesday night to reject a proposal to require a State Department report on Israel’s human rights record amid the U.S. ally’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders brought the resolution under a little-known provision in federal law that allows Congress to order a State Department investigation of any foreign country receiving U.S. military aid. A simple majority vote in the Senate would have forced a State Department report within 30 days.
Before the vote, Sanders said Israel was within its right to retaliate against Hamas after its terrorist attacks on Oct. 7, but that the counteroffensive by Israel has created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, affecting nearly 2 million civilians. Israel’s military campaign has been aided by U.S. supplies, he said, making congressional oversight necessary.
The resolution would only order a report, he said. Any further action would have to be approved by both chambers of Congress and signed by the president.
“We must ensure that U.S. aid is being used in accordance with international human rights and our own laws,” Sanders said in a floor speech just before the vote. “A vote for this resolution is only to request more information on a tragic situation… No matter what your view on this terrible war may be — you agree with me, you don’t agree with me — we cannot bury our eyes in the sand.”
Opponents of the resolution from both parties characterized it as an unnecessary hurdle for Israel in a time of war.
The federal law Sanders used to bring the resolution “was never intended to be used against an ally in a war,” Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said.
Passing the resolution would show division between the U.S. and Israel, making further provocation from adversaries like Iran more likely, Cardin said.
“Its passage would be a gift to Hamas, a gift to Iran,” Cardin said.
Cardin proposed a vote to table the measure, which the chamber approved.
Nine Democrats and one Republican, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, joined Sanders in voting to advance the resolution. The Democrats were: Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Laphonza Butler of California, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Peter Welch of Vermont and Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
The nine-page Sanders resolution begins by acknowledging that the war began after “brutal” terrorist attacks by Hamas on civilians in southern Israel on Oct. 7, “killing some 1,200 innocent men, women, and children, and taking more than 200 hostages.”
But it also noted that the Israeli counteroffensive in Gaza killed nearly 19,000 people and wounded 50,000 as of Dec. 14, the day before Sanders filed the resolution.
Other consequences of Israel’s military action include displacing nearly 2 million people from Gaza, damaging United Nations facilities and destroying homes and buildings in the territory at a greater rate than the German city of Dresden suffered from British and U.S. bombing during World War II, according to the resolution.
The damage to Gaza was carried out with bombs and artillery made in the United States and provided by the federal government, the resolution reads.
“Israel has the right to defend itself and go to war with Hamas, who started this whole situation,” Sanders said on the Senate floor. “Israel does not have the right to go to war with the entire Palestinian people … And sadly that is what is happening right now.”
Merkley voiced his support for the resolution. Demanding accountability from an ally responding to a terrorist attack is awkward, he said.
“But when there’s been this level of casualties and we are this closely tied to it, it is the right thing to do,” Merkley said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell spoke against the measure from the Senate floor earlier Tuesday.
“The resolution brought forward by Sen. Sanders is little more than performative left-wing politics,” the Kentucky Republican said. “It is not, as our colleague would suggest, about authorizing a report on aid to Israel. It’s not even about human rights. It’s about tying the hands of a close ally locked in a necessary battle against savage terrorists.”
Those concerned about the plight of civilians in Gaza should focus on Hamas, “who orchestrated their suffering,” McConnell added. Hamas steals humanitarian aid and uses civilians as human shields, while Israel takes great effort to minimize civilian casualties, he said.
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