In a notable test on January 16, Senator Bernie Sanders forced colleagues to decide whether to investigate human rights abuses in the Israel-Hamas war, a step toward potentially limiting U.S. military aid to Israel as its devastating attacks on Gaza grind past 100 days.

Senators overwhelmingly rejected the effort, a first of its kind tapping into a decades-old law that would require the U.S. State Department to, within 30 days, produce a report on whether the Israeli war effort in Gaza is violating human rights and international accords. If the administration failed to do so, U.S. military aid to Israel, long assured without question, could be quickly halted.

But the roll call vote begins to reveal the depth of unease among U.S. lawmakers over Israel’s prosecution of the war against Hamas. With no apparent end to the bombardment, Israel’s attacks against Palestinians, an attempt to root out Hamas leaders, are viewed by some as disproportional to the initial terrorist attack on Israel.

In all, 11 senators joined Sanders in the procedural vote, mostly Democrats from across the party’s spectrum including Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), Senator Peter Welch (VT), and Senator Jeff Merkley (OR), while 72 opposed.

“To my mind, Israel has the absolute right to defend itself from Hamas’ barbaric terrorist attack on October 7, no question about that,” Sanders said ahead of the vote. “But what Israel does not have a right to do — using military assistance from the United States — does not have the right to go to war against the entire Palestinian people. And in my view, that’s what has been happening.”

The White House has rejected the approach from Sanders as “unworkable” as President Joe Biden’s administration seeks a transition from Israel and works to ensure support at home and abroad against a stirring backlash to the scenes of destruction from Gaza.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, moved to table the measure, arguing it is “counterproductive” and would make it more difficult for the U.S. to prevent escalation of the expanding conflict.

“We do not believe that this resolution is the right vehicle to address these issues. And we don’t think now is the right time. It’s unworkable, quite frankly,” said a statement from the White House National Security Council’s John Kirby.

With repeated overtures to Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing apartheid-style government, including shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Biden administration is pushing Israel to shift the intensity of the battle.

President Biden recently warned that Netanyahu is starting to lose support around the world due to what he said was “the indiscriminate bombing” by Israel in Gaza.

Some 24,000 people in Gaza, the majority of them women and children, have been killed and the bombings have destroyed most of the housing units, displacing most of its 2.3 million people in a humanitarian catastrophe.

“It is necessary because of the scale of destruction in Gaza, the indiscriminate nature of the military campaign, the humanitarian catastrophe that is now occurring and the limits on humanitarian access,” Sanders said in a speech on the Senate floor, and because of “the extensive use of U.S. weapons in attacks that have killed thousands of civilians ― much of the destruction taking place in Gaza has been done with U.S. weapons.”

The Senate action came as Biden’s request for $106 billion supplemental national security aid for Israel, as well as Ukraine and other military needs, is at a standstill.

Of that supplemental aid package, more than $14 billion would go to Israel, including $10 billion in U.S. military assistance, as it retaliates against Hamas for the Oct. 7 surprise attack, among the most deadly assaults ever. Some 1,200 people were killed and 250 taken hostage, many still being held.

Several key Democratic senators have announced their unease with Israel’s war in Gaza, insisting the Biden administration must do more to push the Netanyahu government to reduce civilian casualties and improve living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza.

Going further, Sanders had already announced his refusal to support more military aid to Israel in the package because of the war.

“The time is now for the U.S. Senate to act,” Sanders said ahead of the vote, which he vowed was “just the beginning” of his efforts to limit the war’s devastation.

Heading toward the vote, Sanders said, what he was trying to do was unprecedented in procedure, and essentially in practice.

“The Congress has always been supportive of Israel in general, and this begins to question the nature of the military campaign,” Sanders said.

The resolution is drawn from the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which was amended after the Nixon era, enabling Congress to provide oversight of U.S. military assistance abroad. It requires that any arms or military aid must be used in accordance with international human rights accords.

“The 502B process had never been used before, and now that tool is on the table,” said Andrew O’Neill, a liberal lobbyist, in a statement. “These are lonely votes, but votes that can be the start of something bigger.”

While senators have voted to try to halt foreign arms sales to other countries in the past, this is an untested mechanism.

The question before the Senate will be whether to ask the State Department for a report on whether human rights violations using U.S. equipment may have occurred during Israel’s current campaign against Gaza, according to Sanders’ office.

If the resolution were to be approved, it would force the State Department to produce a report of its findings within 30 days or risk the aid being cut off.

While it was not at all certain that U.S. aid to Israel would actually be halted, since Congress could take steps to ensure no interruption, it was enough of a threat that many senators, even the Democrats who have raised concerns about the bombardment of Gaza and the humanitarian crisis, would be unwilling to support the measure.

Senate Republicans have been almost unanimous in their support for Israel, even as they are blocking military aid while holding President Biden’s broader national security package hostage over border demands. In addition, radical factions within the GOP are beholden to Trump, who has shown his repeated loyalty to the interests of Russian dictator Putin, are against helping Ukraine defend itself.

Talks on attaching the Mexico-U.S. border security provisions to the national security aid package are lumbering along, but no quick breakthrough is expected as Republicans push for tougher restrictions on migrants than Democrats are willing to give, particularly for immigrants seeking asylum in the United States.

Lisa Mascaro and MI Staff

Associated Press


Jose Luis Magana (AP) and Evan Vucci (AP)