US senators have defeated a measure, introduced by Bernie Sanders, that would have made military aid to Israel conditional on whether the Israeli government is violating human rights and international accords in its devastating war in Gaza.
A majority of senators struck down the proposal on Tuesday evening, with 72 voting to kill the measure, and 11 supporting it. Although Sanders’ effort was easily defeated, it was a notable test that reflected growing unease among Democrats over US support for Israel.
The measure was a first-of-its-kind tapping into a decades-old law that would require the US state department to, within 30 days, produce a report on whether the Israeli war effort in Gaza is violating human rights and international accords. If the administration failed to do so, US military aid to Israel, long assured without question, could be quickly halted.
It is one of several that progressives have proposed to raise concerns over Israel’s attacks on Gaza, where the Palestinian death toll has surpassed 24,000 and Israel’s bombardment since Hamas launched attacks on it on 7 October has displaced most of Gaza’s 2.4 million residents.
“We must ensure that US aid is being used in accordance with human rights and our own laws,” Sanders said in a speech before the vote urging support for the resolution, lamenting what he described as the Senate’s failure to consider any measure looking at the war’s effect on civilians.
The White House had said it opposed the resolution. The US gives Israel $3.8bn in security assistance each year, ranging from fighter jets to powerful bombs that could destroy Hamas tunnels. Biden has asked Congress to approve an additional $14bn.
The measure that Sanders proposed uses a mechanism in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which Congress to provide oversight of US military assistance, that must be used in accordance with international human rights agreements.
The measure faced an uphill battle. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress oppose any conditions on aid to Israel, and Joe Biden has staunchly stood by Israel throughout its campaign in Gaza, leaving Sanders with an uphill battle. But by forcing senators to vote on the record about whether they were willing to condition aid to Israel, Sanders and others lawmakers sparked debate on the matter.
The 11 senators who supported Sanders in the procedural vote were mostly Democrats from across the party’s spectrum.
Some lawmakers have increasingly pushed to place conditions on aid to Israel, which has drawn international criticism for its offensive in Gaza.
“To my mind, Israel has the absolute right to defend itself from Hamas’s barbaric terrorist attack on October 7, no question about that,” Sanders told the Associated Press in an interview ahead of the vote.
“But what Israel does not have a right to do – using military assistance from the United States – does not have the right to go to war against the entire Palestinian people,” said Sanders. “And in my view, that’s what has been happening.”
Amid anti-war protests across the US, progressive representatives including Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Barbara Lee and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have called for a ceasefire. In a letter to the US president, many of these lawmakers stressed that thousands of children had been killed in the Israeli bombings.
Speaking from the Republican side before the measure was introduced on Tuesday evening, South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham said that Hamas, the Islamist group, has “militarized” schools and hospitals in the territory by operating amongst them.
Israel has blamed Hamas for using hospitals as cover for military purposes, but has not provided definitive proof backing its claims that Hamas kept a “command center” under Gaza’s main al-Shifa hospital, which the Israeli Defense Forces raided in November.
Two thirds of Gaza’s hospitals have been closed amidst what Biden has characterized as “indiscriminate bombings”, during a time of acute need, where United Nations agencies are warning of famine and disease as Gaza is besieged by Israel.
Despite the defeat, organizations that had supported Sanders’ effort saw it as something of a victory.
“The status quo in the Senate for decades has been 100% support for Israel’s military, 100% of the time from 100% of the Senate,” said Andrew O’Neill, the legislative director of Indivisible, one of the groups that backed the measure. “The fact that Sanders introduced this bill was already historic. That ten colleagues joined him is frankly remarkable.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting