Decisions Loom in Critical Days for Israel-Hamas War

J Street Joins Half of Congressional Democrats in Urging Strict Enforcement by the Biden Administration of Arms Transfer Rules as Rafah Invasion Looms

May 6, 2024

With efforts to achieve an immediate, bilateral ceasefire between Israel and Hamas at a critical stage, hope for an agreement to free hostages, halt the fighting and allow for a surge of aid to Gaza’s civilian population hangs in the balance.

Against this backdrop, preparations for an Israeli invasion of Rafah – which President Biden described as a “red line” in March – appear to be moving ahead, with evacuation orders in place for civilians in the area. Just last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States “cannot” support a major military operation in Rafah without “an effective plan” to protect civilians, and that the administration has “not seen such a plan.”

Meanwhile, conditions continue to deteriorate throughout Gaza for its 2.2 million people. Just this weekend, Executive Director of the World Food Program Cindy McCain warned that parts of Gaza are now in “full-blown famine.”

This week as well, the White House faces a major deadline to report to Congress under President Biden’s National Security Memorandum 20 (NSM-20) on partner countries’ use of US arms. It will assess the Israeli government’s compliance with the standards set forth in President Biden’s policy, including whether the Netanyahu government has adhered to international humanitarian law and US law that prohibits recipients of US military assistance from restricting the delivery of humanitarian aid.

While still deeply hopeful that the Biden Administration can be successful in its efforts to broker an agreement, J Street is cognizant that the administration must also set its policy now in the event the fighting continues.

J Street – a pro-Israel organization that has supported every single appropriation of security aid to Israel, including the emergency supplemental legislation signed into law two weeks ago – continues to fervently believe that any further military assistance to Israel must be provided in full accordance with US and international law, and with President’s Biden’s own NSM-20.

The President should be aware that at least half of the Democratic members of the House and Senate agree that our laws should and must be fully enforced and that the time has come to back up administration warnings over Israeli conduct with meaningful action.

Last Wednesday, 57 Democrats urged the Biden Administration to “withhold certain offensive military aid” in order to deter an invasion of Rafah.

On Friday, 88 Democrats urged the administration to consider its power to “suspend certain transfers” of offensive weapons in an effort to press the Netanyahu government to allow more urgently needed humanitarian aid into Gaza.

These are just the latest in a series of letters and statements that Members of Congress have made on the question of enforcing existing restrictions on the use of American assistance by the Netanyahu government. It is vital to note that J Street and the Members of Congress with whom we stand all advocate exempting Iron Dome and other purely defensive military aid from the application of restrictions, conditions or other limitations.

This weekend, reports surfaced that the Administration may be heeding this advice, putting a hold on at least one shipment of US-made ammunition.

“In the face of the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza, and on the precipice of a Rafah invasion with unfathomable risks to both Palestinian civilians and Israeli interests alike, it is entirely appropriate that President Biden take meaningful action now to influence Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decisions,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said. “The US cannot turn a blind eye as our military assistance provides a blank check for decisions which violate US and international law, risk the lives of hostages and civilians, and run counter to both US and Israeli interests.”

The warnings from pro-Israel US lawmakers echo the concerns of hundreds of former senior officials in Israel’s security agencies and foreign service who have warned that the Netanyahu government’s restrictions on humanitarian aid are endangering Israel’s global standing and undermining its military goals.

“The President should heed the voices of congressional leaders – and those of voters across the country – who believe that our laws, interests and values must be upheld even when supporting the security of our closest allies,” Ben-Ami said. “An NSM-20 report that papers over non-compliance or fails to take meaningful enforcement steps in response to violations will undermine civilian safety and US credibility in this and future conflicts.”

J Street calls upon the Biden Administration to ensure the report is thorough and impartial in its assessments, and that it does not hesitate to decisively remedy deficiencies by any party with concrete enforcement action – including withholding certain offensive weapons transfers as appropriate.