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Mounting pressure

Growing calls from Democrats for humanitarian pauses in Israel-Hamas war

There is growing concern in Washington about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza as Israel escalates its targeting of Hamas infrastructure

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Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) speaks during a news conference following the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon meeting at the U.S. Capitol Building on September 19, 2023, in Washington, DC.

As Israel escalates its targeting of Hamas infrastructure in Gaza, there is growing concern in Washington about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the enclave. Calls from both the White House and congressional Democrats for humanitarian pauses in fighting to deliver aid and allow for the evacuation of hostages have been mounting since late last week. 

At the same time, most lawmakers say they remain committed to supporting an Israeli response against Hamas, even as some express concerns about Israel’s tactics.

Twenty-five Democratic senators, led by progressive Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Peter Welch (D-VT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), released a joint statement on Friday highlighting concerns about an imminent crisis at Gaza’s hospitals and the diminishing supply of clean drinking water in the territory.

“Right now, hospitals in Gaza are hours away from running out of fuel that powers ventilators, incubators for babies, and other lifesaving equipment, and diseases are rapidly spreading without power to treat and pump clean drinking water,” the statement reads.

They called for the administration to work with Israel, Egypt and the United Nations to transport fuel to hospitals, desalination plants and water pumping stations, which they said could “be used immediately to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians, including babies and children.”

They claimed that oversight mechanisms would allow those deliveries to be carried out successfully without Hamas interference. The lawmakers also reemphasized that “Israel must hold Hamas accountable” for its “horrific terrorist attacks” on Israel.

Several Jewish House Democrats endorsed the calls for a humanitarian pause last week, as did the White House.

A smaller group of senators, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Ed Markey (D-MA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Murphy, Van Hollen, Merkley, Welch and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), released a separate statement calling for humanitarian pauses, saying that “the war in Gaza has become a humanitarian crisis and has claimed the lives of innocent Palestinians.”

But that statement, too, reiterated Israel’s “right to defend its citizens after Hamas’s terrorist attacks” and blamed the Hamas attack for “driv[ing] the region into turmoil and cost[ing] thousands of lives.”

The White House’s tone toward Israel is also showing signs of hardening. 

A readout of President Joe Biden’s call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said Biden had “reiterated that Israel has every right and responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism and underscored the need to do so in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law that prioritizes the protection of civilians” and “underscored the need to immediately and significantly increase the flow of humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of civilians in Gaza.”

Various lawmakers have also issued individual statements this weekend expressing varying degrees of concern about the Israeli attacks on Hamas.

In a post on X on Saturday, Sanders appeared to accuse Israel of failing to uphold international law.

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire, and getting worse by the minute,” he said. “Israel must obey international law and allow innocent men, women, and children the food, water, medical supplies, and fuel that is desperately needed. NOW.”

Rep. André Carson (D-IL), in an interview at the Capitol last week, appeared to threaten Jewish Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), who had criticized Carson and other lawmakers who voted against a pro-Israel resolution.

“If he wants to play some kind of tough guy,” Carson said, “we can handle it like gentlemen or we can get into something else.”

Sen. Mark Pocan (D-WI), a leading Israel critic in the House who has called for a cease-fire, accused Israel of pursuing “collective punishment” in Gaza and accused it of “not targeting Hamas.”

“1000’s more will be killed or made permanently homeless, due to the imbalance of power Israel holds over an open air prison like Gaza,” Pocan said. “Israel threatens their own future with this wholesale destruction.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), another cease-fire proponent, said that the war “is hurting the president” and the Democratic Party. 

Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) said that Israel needs to pause its offensive to “assess different options,” raising concerns about the ground invasion “from a military and human rights perspective.” Crow, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committees, is set to speak in a J Street webinar on Tuesday.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, called for caution by Israel and humanitarian pauses in fighting. 

“More efforts must also be taken to reduce the impacts of Israel’s military campaign on the civilians in Gaza,” Smith said, adding that “much more can be done” to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and that the risks of not doing so are greater than the risks of Hamas stealing humanitarian supplies.

He argued that a failure to provide additional aid would only increase Hamas’ ranks and could cause the conflict to grow. But he also reiterated his support for Israel.

“I strongly support the goal of significantly degrading and ultimately eliminating the Hamas terrorist organization,” Smith said. “Israel must do all they can to make sure Hamas is never again able to carry out terrorist attacks. The horrors of the October 7th attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas militants should make that clear to everyone.”
Lawmakers also expressed concern about Israel’s shutdown of communications in Gaza over the weekend as it expanded its ground operations in the territory.

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