US Senate Democrats push Blinken to address ‘humanitarian emergency’ in Gaza

17 lawmakers sign letter calling on Biden administration to take lead on reconstruction efforts and increase engagement on issue

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

People gather to view the rubble of the al-Jalaa building in Gaza City, Friday, May 21, 2021. The building housed The Associated Press bureau in Gaza City for 15 years. (AP/John Minchillo)
People gather to view the rubble of the al-Jalaa building in Gaza City, Friday, May 21, 2021. The building housed The Associated Press bureau in Gaza City for 15 years. (AP/John Minchillo)

Seventeen Democratic senators wrote to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday urging him address the “humanitarian emergency” in the Gaza Strip following last month’s war between Israel and terror groups in the coastal enclave.

“In order for this ceasefire to be durable and avoid a renewal of the cycle of violence, it is critical that we improve the dire conditions in Gaza that only contribute to despair and further fuel extremism,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, spearheaded by Sens. Chris Van Hollen, Tim Kaine, Chris Murphy and Jeff Merkley and first reported by Axios.

The Biden administration has already expressed interest in engaging with Gaza reconstruction plans, and Blinken was in the region last week for talks on the matter. He said the effort would be led by the United Nations in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority to ensure the financial aid does not reach the Hamas terror group, which rules the Strip.

The letter — also signed by senators Patrick Leahy, Brian Schatz, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Raphael Warnock, Sherrod Brown, Martin Heinrich, Jack Reed, Patty Murray, Sheldon Whitehouse, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan — does not mention Hamas, instead focusing specifically on “address[ing] the growing needs of the civilian population.”

The senators urge Blinken to “press all sides to allow for unfettered relief,” announce new bilateral funding for humanitarian and development assistance, including access to safe drinking water, and encourage other donor countries, including Israel, to join the effort.

They said Israel should be pushed to open the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings for pedestrians and goods and that the US should also work to “ease on an emergency basis, and ultimately lift, the harsh restrictions on freedom of movement that block Gazans” — an apparent criticism of Israel’s current policies for the Hamas-run coastal enclave, which Jerusalem says are necessary for security reasons.

While the Defense Ministry announced after the May 20 ceasefire that Gazans seeking medical treatment in Israel would once again be allowed to enter the country, rights groups say that has not been the case, with one cancer patient dying this week after being refused a permit.

The senators backed restoring US humanitarian funding for Gaza to pre-Trump levels of $360 million annually. They also called on US President Joe Biden to appoint an ambassador to Israel, a consul-general in Jerusalem to coordinate with the Palestinians, and a USAID chief of mission.

Biden is expected to nominate former deputy secretary of state for management and resources Thomas Nides as the next ambassador to Israel in the coming weeks. Blinken, during his visit to Israel, said the US plans to reopen the consulate, which served as a de facto mission to the Palestinians. The USAID mission for the West Bank and Gaza is currently led by an acting chief.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his office in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. (Haim Zach / GPO)

“We strongly urge you to step up the US’s diplomatic engagement to lead the international community and meet this moment,” the senators added, parroting a line pushed by progressive Democrats in recent weeks who have been critical of the administration’s relatively hands-off approach to the conflict.

Biden officials have hoped to downgrade the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on their priority list in order to focus on other arguably more urgent and less intractable foreign policy issues, such as combating global adversaries China and Russia in addition to climate change, but last month’s Gaza war drew Washington back in as the international community sought a ceasefire.

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