Rank-and-file Democrats split over potential Israeli invasion of Rafah

Some Senate Democrats emphasize the need to root out the remaining Hamas battalions in the city, while others said an invasion of Rafah is a nonstarter

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) (R), speaks as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) listens, during news conference on Capitol Hill January 27, 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Senate Democrats are roughly split over the possibility of an Israeli ground invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where many displaced Palestinians have taken refuge.

President Joe Biden over the weekend called a potential Israeli invasion of Rafah “a red line” for the U.S., appearing to harden a previous position that an large-scale operation in the city would be untenable without specific procedures in place to ensure the safety of civilians. Israeli leaders have said that operations inside Rafah will be necessary to eliminate remaining Hamas leaders and infrastructure.

Asked whether they agree with Biden that Israel should not invade Rafah, members of Biden’s party appear split.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) told Jewish Insider that he agreed with Biden’s red line, describing a potential Israeli invasion as “not constructive to the peace effort of trying to figure out what’s the long view — where are we trying to go?”

Pressed on Hamas’ repeated rejections of cease-fire proposals and the presence of Hamas leadership in the city, Hickenlooper acknowledged the difficulty of the debate, but said there’s possibility for “a compromise” and “get[ting] to a level of stepping back, assessing the realities that you face, and then look[ing] at new possibilities. And that’s really what I think President Biden is proposing.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) told JI the red line is “[Biden’s] decision to make” but said there “absolutely should be… concern about innocent Palestinians who are being used by their own government, by Hamas, as human shields in that area.”

Cortez Masto said that, to address that situation, Hamas should release the remaining hostages and lay down its arms. She didn’t directly answer a question about what Israel should do if Hamas continues to reject cease-fire proposals.

“I support what the administration is trying to do, ensuring that they’re looking toward a cease-fire, releasing the hostages, getting the necessary humanitarian aid,” she responded.

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) offered clear and unequivocal opposition to a Rafah invasion in a “Meet the Press” interview on NBC over the weekend. 

Warnock said an invasion of Rafah would be “morally unjustifiable and unconscionable,” citing predictions from humanitarian groups that nearly 100,000 civilians could die in such an offensive.

Other Democrats, while cautioning about the need to prevent civilian casualties, have been more supportive of the prospect of continuing Israeli operations.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) indicated he’d support an Israeli operation in Rafah, within limits. He told JI he’d spoken to Israeli war cabinet officials recently about the need for a plan to evacuate civilians and ensure humanitarian relief.

“The military approach, I think, has to be more precision-guided and special operations-calibrated to go after the leadership that is ensconced there,” Blumental said. “I think that there are still a lot of Hamas fighters, the estimate is four brigades or battalions still there. And at some point, Israel has to dismantle that force.”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) told JI, “My position is that Israel has the right to defend herself and to go after the Hamas terrorists, and we hope that they do that in a way that minimizes civilian casualties as much as possible.”

Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) pushed back against  the Biden administration’s opposition to a Rafah invasion on Monday.

“Israel has the right to fully engage Hamas to its end. Hamas deliberately harms and hides behind civilians, not Israel,” Fetterman said. “Until Hamas surrenders, frees the hostages, and ends this humanitarian tragedy, I do not support any conditions.”

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who is facing a competitive reelection race, told JI only that he was “not going to analyze military tactics today.” 

From the party’s left wing, eight Senate progressives said in a letter to Biden on Monday that the Biden administration should deem Israel in violation of U.S. foreign aid laws and suspend offensive military aid if it does not “immediately and dramatically expand humanitarian access and facilitate safe aid deliveries throughout Gaza.”

The lawmakers said, however, that the cutoff shouldn’t apply to Iron Dome and other missile-defense systems.

“Federal law is clear, and, given the urgency of the crisis in Gaza, and the repeated refusal of Prime Minister Netanyahu to address U.S. concerns on this issue, immediate action is necessary to secure a change in policy by his government,” the lawmakers wrote.

That letter was signed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Peter Welch (D-VT), Tina Smith (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM).

Biden said in the “red line” interview that he would never cut off all weapons sales to Israel.

But the administration is reportedly considering cutting off support for Israel at the United Nations Security Council and placing additional conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel if a Rafah invasion proceeds, according to Axios.

On Tuesday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan appeared to backpedal from Biden’s “red line” comments, reiterating the administration’s previous position that the U.S. won’t support a Rafah offensive without civilian protections.

But he also unequivocally described Hamas as the obstacle to a temporary cease-fire, adding that Hamas has “​​created a set of burdens on Israel’s military operations that are nearly unprecedented by hiding among the civilian population.”

“We have said Israel has to do more when it comes to the protection of civilians, and we’ve spoken today at some length about Rafah, but I do feel it is important to continue to ensure that this conversation, this story is complete, that all elements of it are brought into the picture,” Sullivan continued.

He said he personally worries over both the humanitarian situation in Gaza and “making sure that our partner and ally Israel is not facing in the future the kind of threat that it faced on Oct. 7.” And he squarely blamed Hamas for refusing to agree to a cease-fire.

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