US Senate votes against Bernie Sanders bid to mandate human rights report on Israel aid

Dozens of organisations, including Jewish and Palestinian American groups, endorsed the resolution

Senator Bernie Sanders attempted to require President Joe Biden's administration to conduct a report on purported Israeli human rights abuses in Gaza. Bloomberg
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The US Senate on Tuesday rejected a resolution led by progressive independent Bernie Sanders that would have required President Joe Biden's administration to conduct a report on the possibility of Israeli human rights abuses during its war in Gaza.

If passed, it would not have limited or created conditions on Washington's support to Israel, but would have required a State Department report on how the aid is being used.

Mr Sanders defended the failed resolution on the Senate floor on Tuesday night. It was rejected by 72 votes to 11.

He spoke in front of enlarged photos showing Palestinian refugee children, and said that Washington “cannot look away” from the scale of destruction in Gaza.

“This is a very modest, commonsense proposal, and [it's] frankly very hard for me to understand who would oppose it,” he said before the vote.

“We will be voting on a very simple question: Do we support asking the State Department whether human rights violations may have occurred using US equipment or assistance in this war?”

The Senate's answer to that question: No.

The vote came after the Israeli military at the weekend said they were moving into “lower intensity” operations in Gaza. Health authorities there said almost 25,000 people have been killed by Israeli attacks, and two million people have been displaced in the enclave.

Last week, the International Court of Justice in The Hague heard South Africa's case accusing Israel of a genocidal campaign against Palestinians.

Mr Sanders' resolution would not have created a law, but invoked a long-standing one.

US law technically prohibits security assistance, including arms sales, to any government that engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.

But the provision in question – Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act – “has rarely been invoked in recent decades despite continued assistance to governments implicated in human rights abuses and likely violations of international humanitarian law,” according to the Washington based non-profit Centre for Civilians in Conflict, which endorsed Mr Sanders' resolution.

Money from Washington has propped up Israel's operations in Gaza. With strong bipartisan support, the US has, over the decades, provided Israel $158 billion in funding, according to a 2023 Congressional report, almost all going to defence.

The Biden administration has twice bypassed Congress since October to increase military sales to Israel as its bombardment of Gaza increased.

Mr Sanders stressed the importance of oversight in a lengthy letter to Mr Biden last week.

“Congress must act to conduct real oversight … We are deeply complicit in what is going on [in Gaza], and we have to ensure the US aid is being used in line with international human rights and our own laws,” Mr Sanders wrote in a letter to Mr Biden.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused the resolution of “degrading our nation's credibility even further”.

“The resolution brought forward by Senator Sanders is little more than performative, left-wing politics … It is about tying the hands of a close ally locked in a necessary battle against savage terrorists,” Mr McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Democratic leaders opposed the legislation.

Senator Ben Cardin, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the resolution was “an indictment against Israel, make no mistake about it”.

“Its passage would be a gift to Hamas, a gift to Iran … if Iran believes that the United States is not with Israel, believe me it makes it more likely we're going to see additional attacks in that region,” Mr Cardin said on the floor.

Seventy-five rights groups, including the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Oxfam America, and progressive Jewish-American group Americans For Peace Now, had issued a letter to senators endorsing the resolution.

“If you believe that Israel has not committed human rights violations in Gaza, then you should welcome this report as it would exonerate Israel from any such claims,” said Americans for Peace Now president and chief executive Hadar Susskind, an Israeli-American and former Israeli soldier.

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Updated: January 17, 2024, 8:15 AM