Back from Israel, 6 US House Dems accuse PM of ‘utter disregard’ for Palestinian lives

Six lawmakers, several with pro-Israel records, who traveled to Israel with J Street delegation blame Netanyahu for failure to get relief to Gazans, call for release of hostages

US House Democrats from left to right: Becca Balint of Vermont, Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut tour the West Bank village of Khirbet Zanutah in Feb. 20, 2024. (Tal Shahar/J Street)
US House Democrats from left to right: Becca Balint of Vermont, Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut tour the West Bank village of Khirbet Zanutah in Feb. 20, 2024. (Tal Shahar/J Street)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Six US House of Representatives Democrats returned from an Israel trip accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “utter disregard for Palestinian lives” and fearing that he is moving toward Gaza’s “total destruction.”

The Democrats — including the most senior Democrat on the House appropriations committee, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut — made the comments in a statement issued Friday. They represent the breadth of the party’s ideologies and include several with pro-Israel records.

The statement came as US President Joe Biden said he would airdrop humanitarian assistance into the Gaza Strip following a deadly incident Thursday in which Hamas claims over 100 were killed during a chaotic aid delivery under disputed circumstances. Israel said there were dozens of casualties in a crowd crush that rushed the aid convoy.

Speaking briefly Friday with reporters in the Oval Office, Biden called the event “tragic and  alarming.”

“We need to do more, and the United States will do more,” he said. “In the coming days, we’re going to join with our friends in Jordan and others who have provided air drops of additional food and supplies.”

The recommendations in the joint statement signed by DeLauro, Sean Casten of Illinois, Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, Becca Balint of Vermont, and Salud Carvajal and Mark Takano of California were in line with Biden’s policies, including a call for a six-week ceasefire to facilitate the release of all hostages held by Hamas and the entry of direly needed humanitarian assistance into the Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters at an evening press conference, February 29, 2024. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

But the tone was extraordinary, and could only be seen as a warning that Democrats in the House would continue to veer sharply away from Israel as long as Netanyahu is prime minister.

The six Democrats squarely blamed Netanyahu for the failure to get relief to the Palestinians.

“We are deeply worried that Prime Minister Netanyahu is moving toward the total destruction of Gaza and has demonstrated an utter disregard for Palestinian lives,” the statement said. “Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed – with almost 70,000 more injured and thousands missing. He has shamefully been unwilling to allow humanitarian services in at the scale needed.”

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry has said more than 30,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified, does not differentiate between combatants and civilians, and includes some 13,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists raided southern Israeli communities, massacring 1,200 people and abducting 253.

Biden, too, seemed more ready than he has in the past to squarely place responsibility for aid delivery on Israel.

“We’re going to insist that Israel facilitate more trucks and more routes to give more and more people the help they need,” he said. “No excuses. Because the truth is aid flowing to Gaza is nowhere nearly enough.”

The Biden administration has defended Israel from charges that it is committing genocide in Gaza, and has until now accepted, to a degree, Israel’s claims that it is not alone to blame for the failure of assistance to enter the Palestinian enclave.

Israel says Hamas steals the aid and that it must also contend with a chaotic reality as the war drags on.

Israel, which checks all trucks entering Gaza from both crossings, has also blamed the United Nations for not delivering the aid fast enough after they are cleared, and for leading to a general fall-off in deliveries over the past month.

Biden’s envoys to the United Nations on Thursday blocked a Security Council resolution that would have blamed Israel for the deadly humanitarian aid debacle on Thursday.

Israel contends that the vast majority of deaths were caused by a stampede, while Hamas claims Israeli gunfire was mostly to blame.

Palestinians walk through the destruction from the Israeli offensive in Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (AP/Mahmoud Essa)

The statement from the six Congress members condemns the October 7 massacre at the outset and called for the immediate release of the more than 130 hostages remaining captive, of whom about 100 are thought to remain alive.

The six lawmakers traveled to Israel as part of a delegation organized by J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group that has affiliated political action committees.

DeLauro, who led the delegation, stands out: In addition to being the top Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, she is a member of the House Democratic leadership and has in the past been close to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the preeminent mainstream pro-Israel lobby. AIPAC’s affiliated political action committee has endorsed her. She is married to pollster Stanley Greenberg, who has been active in pro-Israel advocacy.

But the others are also significant: Casten in 2022 unseated Marie Newman in a primary, a victory propelled in part by pro-Israel anger at her policies. Carbajal is a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which unites moderates of both parties. Balint is Jewish and a member of the Progressive Congressional Caucus. Dean’s Philadelphia-area district has a substantial Jewish population.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the J Street president who accompanied the delegation, said the lawmakers were moved by how officials across the spectrum — in Netanyahu’s government, in the opposition, and in the Palestinian Authority — saw the US role as “indispensable.”

“If the United States doesn’t lead some kind of a very large initiative to come out of this in a better place, nothing is going to happen,” Ben-Ami said.

He said the six saw up close the devastation wrought by the October 7 attacks and their aftermath, staying in a hotel housing evacuees from Israel’s northern border, where Hezbollah is firing rockets into Israel in support of Hamas, both backed by Iran.

“The children are playing on the couches next to the members in the lobby as we’re getting ready to go on a tour,” he said. “It’s in the breakfast hall in the morning. The families are getting ready for school and the members are there, getting food right next to them.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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