US Senate rejects Bernie Sanders’ bid to condition aid to Israel on human rights record

72 senators vote against measure in 100-member chamber, defeating efforts to force State Department report on IDF conduct in war against Hamas in Gaza following Oct. 7

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 8, 2023. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 8, 2023. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)

The US Senate rejected a resolution on Tuesday that would have forced the State Department to produce a report within 30 days examining whether Israel committed human rights violations in its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza.

The vote, forced by progressive senator Bernie Sanders, sought to freeze all US security aid to Israel unless this report was produced, tapping for the first time a decades-old law that requires that any arms or military aid must be used in accordance with international human rights accords. While senators have voted to try to halt foreign arms sales to other countries in the past, this was an untested mechanism.

The resolution was voted down 72 to 11, with Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Chris Van Hollen, Martin Heinrich, Laphonza Butler, Ed Markey, Ben Ray Lujan, Mazie Hirono, Peter Welch and Elizabeth Warren and Republican Rand Paul voting for it. Sanders is an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

While the measure was handily defeated, it reflected growing concern among some of US President Joe Biden’s fellow Democrats, especially on the left. The outliers who supported the measure are a small but growing far-left flank of the Democratic Party, sometimes along with a handful of Republican libertarians who oppose all foreign aid.

“We must ensure that US aid is being used in accordance with human rights and our own laws,” Sanders said in a speech before the vote urging support for the resolution, lamenting what he described as the Senate’s failure to consider any measure looking at the war’s effect on civilians.

The White House had said it opposed the resolution, which could have paved the way toward the imposition of conditions on security assistance to Israel.

The Senate side of the Capitol is seen in Washington, early Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, as lawmakers rush to complete passage of a bill to fund the government. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senators who opposed the measure said it sent the wrong message, at a time when Israel had said it was shifting to a more targeted campaign.

“This resolution is not only off-base, it’s dangerous. It sends absolutely the wrong signal at the wrong time,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, moved to set the measure aside, arguing it is “counterproductive” and would make it more difficult for the US to prevent escalation of the expanding conflict.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby had called the resolution “unworkable.”

“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,” Kirby said in a statement.

“The Israelis have indicated they are preparing to transition their operations to a much lower intensity. And we believe that transition will be helpful both in terms of reducing civilian casualties, as well as increasing humanitarian assistance,” he added.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on January 11, 2024. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

The United States gives Israel $3.8 billion in such assistance each year, ranging from fighter jets to powerful bombs that could destroy Hamas tunnels. Biden has asked Congress to approve an additional $14 billion.

Sanders’ resolution was filed under the Foreign Assistance Act, which allows Congress to direct a State to provide a human rights report and other information on any country that received US security assistance.

The 1961 Act was amended after the Nixon era, enabling Congress to provide oversight of US military assistance abroad. It requires that any arms or military aid must be used in accordance with international human rights accords.

If the resolution had passed, it would have required the State Department to provide a report to Congress within 30 days. After receiving the report, Congress could consider another resolution proposing changes to security assistance to Israel.

Israel launched the war to eradicate Hamas, an Iran-backed terror group sworn to Israel’s destruction, after thousands of Palestinian terrorists stormed across the border on October 7, slaughtering 1,200 people, mostly civilians massacred amid brutal atrocities, and capturing 240 hostages.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has said the war has killed over 24,000 people. The figure cannot be independently verified, and is believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 9,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on and immediately after October 7.

IDF troops operate in central Gaza’s Nuseirat, in an image published by the army on January 15, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The war has also driven most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people from their homes, some of them several times, and, according to the UN, has caused a humanitarian crisis, with food, fuel and medical supplies running low.

The Biden administration has been pushing Israel to scale back the war, amid the rising death toll among Gazans.

The three-month war has seen intense battles across Gaza as troops work to strip Hamas of its military and governing capabilities. Israel has vowed to destroy the terror group and to continue fighting until the remaining hostages held by Hamas return.

It is believed that some 132 hostages remain in Gaza, not all of them alive, after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops.

The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 27 hostages– including two whose deaths were announced earlier Tuesday — held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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