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Van Hollen pushes Israel for more Gaza aid and against ‘war crimes’

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) isn’t known as a Capitol Hill bomb-thrower, making grandiose statements for the publicity.

So it’s especially noteworthy when he describes Israel’s blocking of food for children in Gaza as a “war crime.”

His genial personality hasn’t mitigated his fierce, persistent push for Israel to allow Gaza more humanitarian aid and for Washington, Israel’s chief military supplier, to act decisively if it doesn’t.

Van Hollen’s steady stream of statements on the Mideast conflict and his behind-the-scenes White House discussions have been informed and fueled by his January trip to the Rafah crossing from Egypt to Israel. There, he visited a warehouse with necessities that Israel stopped from going into Gaza, including maternity kits, water purifier pills, water filtration devices and solar-powered desalinization units.

United Nations officials have warned that about one-quarter of Gaza’s population faces “imminent famine” and that almost everyone there suffers from “woefully inadequate humanitarian food assistance to survive.” Israel’s retaliation against Gaza has killed more than 32,000 people. That’s about 27 times the number who died Oct. 7 when Hamas attackers killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped about 250, including around 100 who remain captive.

The Federal Insider talked with Van Hollen last week about the conflict in his Hart Senate Office Building suite, which was bathed in natural light even on a cool, cloudy day. Here are edited excerpts from that interview.

Federal Insider: In a Senate speech last month, you said “kids in Gaza are now dying from the deliberate withholding of food … that is a war crime. It is a textbook war crime. That makes those who orchestrate it war criminals.” Are you accusing Israel of war crimes? Were you saying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a war criminal?

Van Hollen: I’m saying that those who are involved in deliberately restricting humanitarian assistance into Gaza are violating international humanitarian law. And you have to go through a process to determine which individuals. But I can assure you that people like [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir and [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich, who are some of the most extreme-right members of the government, have said that Israel should stop delivering humanitarian assistance, and they themselves have taken themselves, have taken actions to prevent the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

Is the United States complicit in a war crime because it continues to provide the arms that are bombing Gaza?

I think the United States needs to be very careful, not to be caught up in that. Which is why I continue to encourage the administration to take stronger and bolder action. The Biden administration and the president have actively been trying to improve the situation with respect to access to humanitarian assistance. They’ve been trying. My point is that they’ve only been marginally successful, and therefore we need to use more levers of our influence to accomplish our goals.

The March 11 letter to President Biden from you and other senators said the Netanyahu government is in violation of the Foreign Assistance Act, which says, “No assistance shall be furnished … to any country when it is made known to the President that the government of such country prohibits or otherwise restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance.” Isn’t it the U.S. government that is in violation of the law because it is Washington that provides the aid?

What we said was, the way that the Netanyahu government was restricting humanitarian aid into Gaza and within Gaza, violating the terms of U.S. law. You’re absolutely right, it’s up to the U.S. government to apply American law. And we wrote to the president saying, “You’re aware of this humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. There’s a current law on the books. Its title is the Humanitarian Aid Corridor Act, and it needs to be applied under these circumstances.”

You were directly involved in crafting President Biden’s National Security Memorandum/NSM-20, which requires nation’s receiving U.S. military aid to act “in a manner consistent with … international humanitarian law.” The Washington Post reported that Israel provided written assurances “that its use of U.S.-supplied defense equipment does not violate international humanitarian or U.S. human rights law.” Do you believe those assurances?

With respect specifically to the obligations to allow access to humanitarian assistance, I don’t believe that the Netanyahu government is in compliance with the requirements of National Security Memorandum 20.

Do you think the United States should stop military aid to Israel, except for the air defense mechanisms that you’ve supported?

The purpose of the National Security Memorandum 20 is not to cut off all assistance, but its purpose is to use our influence to achieve our goals. So, if that means pausing the delivery of bombs to be used in Gaza until the Netanyahu government meets the terms of NSM-20 and allows more humanitarian assistance in Gaza, yes, I think we should use our leverage to make sure more people don’t starve to death in Gaza.

The president is clearly trying to limit civilian casualties. He’s trying to get more assistance in. So the question becomes, if you’re unsuccessful at achieving those goals, at what point do you no longer provide the bombs that are being used in Gaza?

Do you think we’re at that point?

We do need to use our leverage when it comes to military support, nondefensive military support, to prevent more people from starving to death in Gaza. Yes. I think we do need to do that.

According to two recent polls, about 80 percent of Jewish Israelis say “Israel should not take into consideration the suffering of the Palestinians as long as hostages are held in Gaza.” Doesn’t that bolster Netanyahu and make the course you advocate harder.

I think that right now, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s overriding interest is his own political ambition and not the interests of the people of Israel. As I’ve said, the war against Hamas is just in the sense that Israel, of course, is within its rights and I would say has a duty to defend its people after the horrific October 7th attacks. But a just war nevertheless must be fought justly. … Among the many obstacles to peace is Netanyahu … specifically because Netanyahu has very publicly rebuffed President Biden’s call for creating some light at the end of this dark tunnel with a two-state solution.

How do you characterize the Biden administration’s approach to this conflict?

The Biden administration has not made the most effective use of the tools that we have in order to implement the president’s own request. In other words, the president has repeatedly requested that the Netanyahu government take certain actions. And unfortunately, the Biden administration, for the most part, has been rebuffed. And so my view is that the credibility of the Biden administration and the United States requires that we back up our requests with real action.

And “real action” would be pausing military assistance until aid is allowed freely into Gaza?

[Pausing] offensive military assistance, like bombs. Again, the goal is not to cut off military assistance. The goal is to ensure that people don’t die of starvation in Gaza.

The White House and the Israeli Embassy did not respond to Van Hollen’s statements about military assistance.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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