A group of Senate Democrats urged President Biden to do more to protect civilians in Gaza, writing in a letter sent Tuesday that the U.S. should ensure weapons it is transferring to Israel are not being used in a way that violates international law. The letter also expressed concerns about a lack of “transparency” of those transfers.
The letter, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), comes as the Senate prepares to vote Wednesday to move on a package that would send $14 billion in additional aid to Israel that the White House requested, as well as billions more in aid to Ukraine. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), who is one of the letter’s signatories, has called for conditions on the aid to Israel and said he will vote against a test vote on the package Wednesday; Warren has also pushed for conditioning the aid.
Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) also signed on to the letter requesting a briefing by next week and the answers to a lengthy list of questions about the U.S.’s posture on Israel’s military strategy.
Since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas that killed at least 1,200 people, the majority of them civilians, the Israeli military has killed at least 15,000 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, raising concerns among some Democratic lawmakers about the country’s tactics.
“As you have acknowledged, Israel’s military campaign has included ‘indiscriminate bombing,’ ” write the senators. “Your administration must ensure that existing guidance and standards are being used to evaluate the reports of Israel using U.S. weapons in attacks that harm civilians in order to more rigorously protect civilian safety during Israel’s operations in Gaza.”
“Israel is a U.S. partner, and we must ensure accountability for the use of U.S. weapons we provided to our ally,” they add.
The senators pointed out that the U.S. recently launched an initiative via the State Department to track and investigate reports of countries using U.S. weapons to harm civilians, a process that can result in recommending the suspension of arms sales to offending nations. The Defense Department under Biden has also signed onto a declaration with dozens of other countries that stresses “prohibitions against indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, and the obligation to take all feasible precautions in attack.”
“It remains unclear, however, how these different efforts are or will be applied to protect civilians in Gaza,” they wrote.
The senators also said they believe “there is insufficient transparency around weapons transfers to Israel,” noting that Israel is one of a few countries exempt from typical congressional notification requirements for military sales. The Israel and Ukraine aid bill includes waivers for congressional notification requirements, which the senators say would hurt “our ability to monitor and determine whether U.S. assistance is contributing to disproportionate civilian harm.”
The senators also objected to the fact that despite requesting billions in aid for the war, the Pentagon has sent only “a single Marine Corps General to aid Israel’s war planning and advise the country on how to mitigate civilian casualties.” They also point out that the Defense Department has not issued a statement or guidelines on “how Israel should use U.S. weapons.” They raised concerns specifically about the use of 155mm artillery shells,, which they say are particularly harmful to civilians because they are unguided and have a large blast radius.
In their list of questions, the senators asked whether the U.S. had given guidance to Israel about how to use the 155mm shells, and also asked to be given a list of munitions provided to Israel, and their blast radius.