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As Congress weighs aid to Israel, some Democrats want to attach conditions

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Follow the news live on the Israel-Hamas War.

Congressional Democrats are clashing with each other and the Biden administration over a left-wing push that would attach conditions to emergency security aid to Israel during its war against Hamas, the latest reflection of a growing division within the party over support for Israel. the Jewish state.

The debate represents a striking departure from long-standing practice on Capitol Hill, where for decades lawmakers approved huge sums of military funding for Israel with few strings attached. Today, as Israel battles Hamas in a conflict whose civilian death toll has soared, a growing number of Democrats are expressing concern about how U.S. dollars will be used.

The issue could come to a head in the Senate as early as next week, when Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said the chamber could begin work on a legislative package that includes the aid measure.

Disagreements between Democrats simmered Tuesday behind closed doors at the Capitol and the White House. At the White House, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, met with about two dozen Democratic senators who raised concerns about how Israel might use U.S. aid on the battlefield. Later, at a private luncheon at the Capitol, several of those same Democrats argued to their colleagues that any aid package should increase humanitarian aid to Gaza and ensure that Israel does more to prevent civilian casualties.

“We want the president to obtain express assurances from the Netanyahu government regarding a plan to reduce the unacceptable level of civilian casualties, and we want the Netanyahu coalition to commit to fully cooperating with our efforts to provide aid humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat leading the effort, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Ultimately, we need these express assurances. How we get there is something we are discussing at the moment.

Mr. Van Hollen was behind a letter this month to President Biden, signed by half the Democratic caucus, raising concerns about whether U.S.-supplied weapons would be used in accordance with to international law.

The Biden administration has requested $14.3 billion for Israel’s war effort against Hamas as part of a sweeping national security package that includes billions more to accelerate humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.

No Democrats have said they would not support the package. But many fear that if nothing is done, Israel’s use of heavier offensive weapons supplied by the United States and financed by a new infusion of American money could undermine efforts to minimize Palestinian casualties and distribute aid to bombed civilians.

Their concerns have become the latest flash point in a debate within the Democratic Party over how much restraint Israel should show in its strikes on Gaza. Leaders from both parties dismissed the calls for conditions as unnecessary and warned they would cripple Israel’s military strategy.

“There are different views on this,” Mr. Schumer told reporters Tuesday after lunch. “Ultimately, I’m going to discuss this with the administration and my caucus.”

Republicans, eager to highlight Democratic divisions on the issue, were much more direct.

“If Senate Democrats want to vote to tie the hands of Israeli soldiers as they defend their country against cruel terrorists, I welcome such debate,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said in a speech. “Israel deserves the time, space and resources to restore its security, and I will support our ally 100 percent. »

Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of foreign aid from the United States since its founding in 1948, and the $3.8 billion it receives in annual military aid exceeds the amount given to any other nation except recent from Ukraine. Although some of these funds were approved following peace agreements, Congress has not yet detailed terms restricting the conditions under which weapons Israel purchases from the United States can be used.

But that could change as some Democrats call for explicit assurance that Israel’s operations against Hamas will not violate international law in the assistance package.

“These are goals that I think everyone shares, and we’re just trying to figure out the best way to get there,” said Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, who signed the letter to Mr. Biden .

The Biden administration, although it initially unequivocally supported Israel’s efforts to drive Hamas from Gaza, has recently urged Israel to be more surgical in its strikes, to avoid exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis. Last week, Mr. Biden told reporters that the idea of ​​conditioning aid to Israel was “a laudable thought.”

Some leading Democrats in Congress say the Biden administration has already done enough to ensure Israel conducts its operations in a way that spares civilian suffering.

“The Biden administration has had good conversations with the Israelis; I think it had an impact on military strategy as well as humanitarian assistance,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Cardin strongly opposed imposing restrictions on additional weapons destined for Israel.

“We do not condition aid on an ally, and we are not going to try to micromanage its defense,” Mr. Cardin said.

Yet debate over Israel’s use of force has intensified in recent days, as lawmakers prepare for an expected resumption of hostilities in the Gaza Strip. The two sides have been in a temporary truce for almost a week to allow the release of certain hostages held by Hamas and certain Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Democrats pushing for conditions say their concerns should not be seen as a step back in their support for Israel. They say they are trying to avoid an even greater humanitarian catastrophe and security crisis in the region.

“I support Israel’s aid; I always have,” said Sen. Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont. “My big problem is not Israeli aid, but Israeli bombing which has such a devastating impact on civilians.”

He said the administration owes Congress more “transparency” about how the aid program will be used, including why massive offensive weapons would be needed.

“There’s a lot going on for Iron Dome – it’s awesome. Humanitarian – it’s great,” Mr Welch said. “Two thousand pound bombs? Not so sure.”

Iron Dome is a key part of Israel’s missile defense infrastructure, which has been used to neutralize Hamas rockets. Israel has been criticized for using heavy bombs against targets in the Gaza Strip because of the damage these weapons can cause to civilians in a highly populated area.

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