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on the hill

Senators reject genocide accusations against Israel ahead of ICJ hearing

‘Maybe South Africa ought to sit this one out,’ Sen. John Fetterman said

Orthodox Union/Twitter

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks at Orthodox Union event on Capitol Hill, Jan. 11, 2024

Senators rejected accusations that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza, ahead of a hearing at the International Court of Justice about genocide allegations leveled by South Africa against Israel.

“Maybe South Africa ought to sit this one out,” Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) said at a luncheon on Capitol Hill hosted by the Orthodox Union on Wednesday, adding that it’s “appalling” to accuse Israel of genocide “given the history there.”

Israel has the “ability to actually do that, if they wanted to, but they’re there to eliminate Hamas,” Fetterman continued. “Hamas hides behind civilians… If Hamas decided to stand up on a real battlefield, they’d be incinerated in 15 minutes.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) also condemned South Africa’s genocide accusations.

“To say this is a genocide is absurd. It’s not what genocide means,” she said. “And it’s an outrageous thing [to be] attributed to the Israeli people.”

Gillibrand said that, on recent visits to Israel, she’s heard from Israeli officials about their careful procedures for limiting civilian deaths in their strikes.

“I heard of many instances where targets were denied because there were too many civilians around the one target,” she said. “They’re using extremely sophisticated and robust reviews of every single target — thousands of targets chosen every day and reviewed one by one to protect innocent life.”

Fetterman, who has emerged as an outspoken defender of Israel amid the current war, vowed that he’d be “the last man standing” in the Democratic caucus against a premature cease-fire and conditions on aid to Israel, should such a situation arise. 

“I’m always going to be on one side in this situation. And that is on the side of Israel,” he said. “And that is the easiest choice I’ve ever made as a senator here… Perhaps you might be aware that I’ve taken a little bit of blowback for that. Great. I welcome the smoke, then.”

Gillibrand, who recently visited Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan with other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she believes that “Arab states are ready to rebuild the Palestinian state free of Hamas, to actually be the ones to invest in rebuilding, to have a long-term peace agreement with Israel, to provide regional security, to have a defense agreement between Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the Abraham Accords, countries along with Jordan and Egypt.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also described a future Saudi-Israeli normalization deal as connected to a path toward a two-state solution after the Gaza war.

“Sen. [Lindsey] Graham and I are leading this effort, to work with the countries in the region for normalization with Israel. It would be a game changer,” Cardin said. “It also needs to recognize there must be a path forward for responsible leadership for the Palestinian people, one that will recognize Israel’s rights and security.”

Cardin said that “regular conversations are taking place” on the Saudi-Israel deal and that “there’s a lot of real reasons for some optimism as we move forward on how we can turn this tragic event into a bright future,” but talks cannot come to fruition until Israel destroys the Hamas threat.

Cardin added that the past decade, and the period since Oct. 7 in particular, had shaken his feeling of safety as a Jewish American.

“I always thought we’d be safe here in America… I knew that we had our leaders that had our back, that our leaders would never give oxygen to hate,” Cardin said. “That changed in America, has changed around the world.”

“But we always had Israel,” he continued. “Oct. 7 changed that perception, that Jews are safe in Israel. So this is a dangerous time.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that the past few months have been “eye-opening” in revealing antisemitism that has “been simmering under the surface for a long time.”

“The reality is that there are people in our country who view what happened [by Hamas] as justified. It’s not just anyone. It’s people in charge of important things,” Rubio said.

The lunch also included speeches by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sens. Thom Tillis (R-NC), Katie Britt (R-AL), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Tim Scott (R-SC) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). 

The lawmakers expressed their support for additional aid to Israel and the need to free the remaining hostages, as well as funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program at home and other efforts to fight antisemitism, including improved educational programs.

Some senators also spoke about experiences with anti-Israel protesters in response to their support for Israel — Tillis said his neighborhood was flooded with fliers while activists screamed at Collins on a plane flight home to Maine.

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