Top senator calls on Biden to ‘use all levers’ to pressure Israel over Gaza

Joe Biden should use his leverage and the law to pressure Israel to change how it is prosecuting the war in Gaza, the Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen said.

Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, is among a group of senators urging Biden to stop providing Israel with offensive weapons until it lifts restrictions on the delivery of food and medicine into Gaza, where children are now dying of hunger and famine looms.

“We need the president and the Biden administration to push harder and to use all the levers of US policy to ensure people don’t die of starvation,” Van Hollen said in an interview on Friday.

This week, Van Hollen and seven of his colleagues sent a letter to the president arguing that Israel was in violation of the Foreign Assistance Act, a section of which prohibits the sale and transfer of military weapons to any nation that restricts the delivery of US aid.

Their call comes as the administration faces mounting domestic and international pressure over what critics have described as an “absurd” and “inherent contradiction” at the heart of US policy on Israel’s war against Hamas: while the US attempts to ease the deepening humanitarian crisis caused by Israel’s military campaign in the Palestinian territory, it continues to arm the country.

Related: Schumer faces backlash after calling for new Israeli elections to oust Netanyahu

In a sign of the widening rift between Israel and its most important ally, Van Hollen said Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was openly defying Biden’s pleas that Israel do more to protect civilians in Gaza and work toward a long-term solution to the conflict that includes the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu has been an obstacle to the president’s efforts to at least create some light at the end of this very dark tunnel,” Van Hollen said.

The United Nations warned last month that more than a quarter of the 2.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza face “catastrophic levels of deprivation and starvation”. It said without action, widespread famine would be “almost inevitable”. Israel’s military campaign, which came in retaliation for the Hamas attack on 7 October that killed about 1,200 people, has devastated Gaza and killed more than 30,000 people, most of them civilians.

With the prospects of a truce elusive and far too little aid trickling in, Biden has authorized airdrops and the construction of a maritime corridor to deliver desperately needed food and medicine to the Palestinian people living in the besieged territory. But critics say those methods are less effective, less efficient and more dangerous than the unhindered delivery of supplies by land.

“The very fact that the United States is airlifting humanitarian supplies and is now going to be opening a temporary port is a symptom of the larger problem, which is [that] the Netanyahu government has restricted the amount of aid coming into Gaza and the safe distribution of aid within Gaza,” Van Hollen said.

Israel, which tightened its already strict controls on access to the enclave after 7 October, has denied that it is impeding the flow of aid.

Amid intensifying international pressure, Israel said this week it would expand the amount of supplies into the country. A small convoy of six trucks, coordinated by the Israeli military, brought humanitarian aid directly into the isolated northern Gaza earlier this week. Separately, an aid ship loaded with 200 tons of rice, flour, chicken and other items arrived in Gaza on Friday, in the first test of a new sea route.

But that is a far cry from what is needed, humanitarian workers say. Before the five-month-old conflict began, roughly 500 truckloads of humanitarian aid per day crossed into the territory. Now the number is far less, sometimes peaking above 200 trucks per day but often well below, according to UN figures.

Van Hollen’s insistence that the US do more to push Israel on humanitarian aid was informed by his visit to the Rafah crossing from Egypt in January, and the onerous Israeli inspection process he witnessed.

“You witnessed these very, very long lines of trucks trying to get in through Rafah and through the Kerem Shalom crossing, and quite an inspection review, including arbitrary denials of humanitarian aid being delivered into Gaza, which just makes the process even more cumbersome,” he said.

“For example, we visited a warehouse in Rafah that was filled with goods that had been rejected at the inspection sites. The rejected goods included things like maternity kits, included things like water purification systems.”

Van Hollen said no specific reason was given as to why the items were rejected, but said Israel has broadly claimed that they could be considered “dual use” or having a civilian or military purpose. The maternity kit, Van Hollen said, contained a “teeny little scalpel” that he speculated was the reason the package was turned back.

Across the border in Gaza, the situation is dire. UN agencies have estimated that 180 women give birth every day, sometimes without access to adequate pain medication, food or hygiene products. Malnourished, dehydrated and increasingly anemic, many pregnant women in Gaza face elevated risks of postpartum hemorrhaging.

Related: One in five pregnant women in Gaza clinic are malnourished, doctors warn

Another problem, Van Hollen said, is that so many of the people delivering aid or accompanying the aid convoys have been killed, making coordination and distribution of the aid that does enter difficult.

Netanyahu and his government, the senator said, “need to open more crossings, they need to end the arbitrary rejection of goods like maternity kits and solar powered desalinization units, and they need to make sure that food can be safely delivered within Gaza without people getting killed.”

Van Hollen’s comments came the day after Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the US and a longtime ally of Israel’s, was unsparing in a speech in which he declared that Netanyahu had “lost his way”, and urged Israelis to hold elections to replace him. Biden, who has been increasingly open about his frustration with Netanyahu, called it a “good speech”.

Van Hollen called Schumer’s speech an “important moment” that made clear the US believes “there needs to be a change in course” in the way Israel is conducting the war.

‘The administration will have to decide’

In the letter to Biden earlier this week, Van Hollen and his colleagues wrote: “According to public reporting and your own statements, the Netanyahu government is in violation of [the Foreign Assistance Act]. Given this reality, 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 US law.”

Van Hollen also argued that the Israeli government is “not in compliance” with a national security memorandum (NSM 20) issued by the president last month that requires any country that receives US military assistance to provide written assurances it will “not arbitrarily deny, restrict, or otherwise impede” the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Israel reportedly provided that commitment in a letter to Biden signed by Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday, according to Axios. Van Hollen said the onus is now on the US to assess the credibility of Israel’s assurances.

“Part of that evaluation will depend on what’s happening on the ground right now, and their assessment of whether or not, in fact, the Netanyahu government is meeting that requirement,” he said. “And if the signatures and commitments are found to be lacking, then the administration cannot provide military assistance until they determine that they’re credible.”

Van Hollen stressed that enforcing the statute would not prevent the US from continuing to send defensive military assistance to protect Israeli citizens from rocket attacks, such as the Iron Dome.

The memorandum was issued last month, after Van Hollen and more than a dozen Democratic senators introduced an amendment to a wartime aid package that included military assistance for Ukraine, Israel and other US-allies. The senators’ proposal, which would have required any country receiving US weapons to comply with humanitarian laws, risked a messy floor fight among Democrats divided over the US’s approach to the war amid Gaza’s rising death toll.

Instead, Van Hollen said, the administration offered to turn the amendment into a memorandum that, with the force of law, would apply the terms to the sale and transfer of all US military aid. Biden issued the memorandum, and the Senate later approved the foreign aid package, with Van Hollen’s support. That measure is now languishing in the House.

Biden has warned that Israel would cross a “red line” if it proceeded with a large-scale invasion of the southern city of Rafah, where the war has pushed nearly half of Gaza’s population. Reports suggest Netanyahu has approved a plan to invade the city, setting him up for direct conflict with the US president.

Biden has not made clear what consequences Netanyahu might face if he ignores the US’s position. An invasion of Rafah, Van Hollen said, would present “one of those moments where the Biden administration is going to have to decide whether it’s going to back up the president’s strong words with the leverage that it has”.

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