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Israel-Hamas Conflict: 5 Actions Washington Should Prioritize Now
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Israel-Hamas Conflict: 5 Actions Washington Should Prioritize Now

The United States has an obligation to support Israel’s defense, but it should not be a blank check for collective punishment that brutalizes innocent civilians; the Biden administration should urge an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

Photo shows a father reaching for his young child sitting on top of rubble in the destroyed home, with an opening in the wall letting in a stream of sunlight
A Palestinian family searches their home destroyed during the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza, November 2023. (Getty/Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto)

This column contains an update.

Since Hamas militants brutally killed more than 1,200 Israelis on October 7, Israel has responded with some of the most intense bombardments the world has seen in decades, in an attempt to “destroy” the group. In declared efforts to starve resources to Hamas militants, Israel has imposed blockades on fuel, water, electricity, and other humanitarian assistance to 2 million Palestinians in Gaza.

Although Israel has agreed to four-hour temporary pauses in hostilities to allow aid to enter, these are wholly insufficient to stem the catastrophic consequences for millions of innocent Palestinians. Gaza’s Health Ministry has estimated that Israeli strikes have killed more than 11,000, and more than 1.4 million have been displaced—over half of Gaza’s population.

There is a lack of clarity on Israel’s strategic aims even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hints broadly at a long-term occupation. U.S. policymakers must be clear about their own goals as America will be seen to have partial ownership of the circumstances on the ground, as Israel’s ultimate guarantor. It is simply not enough to “encourage” humanitarian relief while still supporting indiscriminate bombing with an undetermined endpoint. There will be no “day after” in Gaza; this will all have long-term collateral that must be considered in the immediate, before further investments are deployed.

It is more critical now than ever that lawmakers make clear that continued U.S. security assistance will be conditioned on Israel’s stewardship of these values [of peace and stability].

The United States has an unshakeable obligation to Israel. But being tethered to Israel is not the same as granting absolute proxy to a discredited Netanyahu to conduct wide-scale warfare—in the midst of a shattered civilian population—with U.S. military resources.

As Congress considers a $14.3 billion security assistance package to Israel, a group of senators* have raised critically important questions about the strategy to defeat Hamas, the governance of Gaza after the conflict, and the conditions to achieve a two-state solution. As Israel’s closest ally, the United States has an obligation to deliver security assistance that supports Israel’s defense needs, while also ensuring that it is not put toward collective punishment for Palestinians. This collective punishment has brutalized thousands of innocent civilians and only jeopardized prospects for lasting peace.

To that end, Congress and the Biden administration should pursue the following priorities:

  1. Urge an immediate humanitarian ceasefire: With Gaza’s health care system already on the brink of collapse, the current humanitarian catastrophe will worsen exponentially if the conflict continues at the intensity seen over the past few weeks. Congress and the administration must work swiftly to negotiate a humanitarian ceasefire, using all available leverage to ensure that both Israel and—through coordination with Qatar and other regional partners—Hamas comply. Rather than the current short pauses, a negotiated ceasefire would allow for developing a clearer long-term strategy to combat Hamas, help facilitate the safe return of hostages, and alleviate the humanitarian situation.
  1. Support Israel’s defense needs: Hamas’ despicable terror attack on Israeli civilians requires that the perpetrators be brought to justice. The attack has shaken Israelis’ sense of safety and security to the core, particularly as Hamas continues a barrage of rocket and arms fire. The United States must support Israel’s efforts to defend its citizens against these attacks by providing critical funding to maintain the country’s Iron Dome system and deliver other defense assets.

    However, the fight against Hamas cannot be won immediately, and it cannot be won with military action alone. It will take a holistic and long-term plan to destroy not only Hamas’ military capabilities, but also its sources of funding, ability to recruit, and political influence. While providing defense assistance, the United States should make clear to Israel that continued collective punishment against Palestinians jeopardizes this plan. The current conflict risks embedding grievances and pain in new generations, feeding into Hamas’ recruitment narratives. Isolating Hamas will require an international coalition. Yet key players, such as Turkey and Jordan, have already withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel in protest of its actions. A shift in Israel’s approach could pay dividends in helping to bring these neighbors into the fold.

  1. Protect humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza: The Biden administration has worked to secure aid to Gaza through the border crossing with Egypt, but these deliveries are but a drop in the bucket as the conflict rages on. In proposing supplemental assistance to Israel, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a package that removed humanitarian aid to Gaza. It is critical that Congress protect and fund robust humanitarian assistance programs, maintaining the president’s budget request of $10 billion for Gaza and Ukraine. The United States must also commit to funding robust and long-term efforts to rebuild Gaza, leading and coordinating with regional partners.
  1. Require compliance with U.S. policy on civilian protection and human rights: Since the October 7 terrorist attack, there has been evidence of serious human rights violations in the response in Gaza, but also in the occupied West Bank. It is essential that lawmakers and policymakers ensure that U.S. weapons are not used to this end. To start, Congress must preserve its right to be notified of any arms transfers the government sends to Israel. It must also ensure that arms transfers adhere to U.S. laws and policies on protection of civilians and human rights. This should include requiring reporting on compliance with the Biden administration’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, which stipulates that arms transfers “promote international peace and stability” and “[reinforce] respect for human rights, international humanitarian law, democratic governance, and rule of law,” among other objectives.

    Security assistance should provide for weapons transfers that are tailored and appropriate to defense needs. The United States should not transfer weapons such as 155mm artillery shells, which are likely to be used unlawfully. Lawmakers and administration officials must prevent American firearms from facilitating violent and illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank, settlements that have stymied progress toward peace for decades.

    The United States should also work with international partners, including Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt, which may have influence over Hamas to secure civilian protection.

  2. Center U.S. diplomacy to advance a political solution: Clearly, Gaza, governed under undemocratic and illiberal Hamas rule since 2005, requires new political leadership. The United States must make clear that a potential Israeli reoccupation of the territory cannot be an option. This is particularly crucial with more than 1 million internally displaced people now in Gaza and fears of a repeat of the mass displacements of 1948 and 1967.

    The United States has begun to grapple with a “day after” to the conflict. But any scenarios may be premature absent a real reckoning of Israel’s endgame to the conflict and the reality of what will be left in Gaza to govern. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already unpopular before October 7, faces widespread anger and blame for failing to protect against the attacks and is unlikely to maintain his leadership position. And though U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is right to affirm Palestinian-led leadership of Gaza, the Palestinian Authority faces a serious absence of trust and credibility under Mahmoud Abbas.

    Ultimately, new leaders in Israel and Palestine will inherit the future of the crisis, and the United States must ensure that its diplomacy and any assistance create the conditions for these leaders to achieve a political solution that can deliver lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians.

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Conclusion

As Congress and the administration assess the proper U.S. strategic approach for the region, there is both a near-term opening for influence and a longer-range imperative for action. With the immediate assistance package, Congress has an opportunity to ensure that this assistance is used to advance, rather than undermine, the common objectives of peace and stability. And while the United States and Israel enjoy a privileged alliance, rooted historically in shared values and interests, it is more critical now than ever that lawmakers make clear that continued U.S. security assistance will be conditioned on Israel’s stewardship of these values and interests.

These positions are both urgent and essential as the United States considers its priorities for long-term engagement. This engagement will require prioritizing political and material investments—not only military—after a perceived pivot away from the Middle East; it will require cultivating regional partnerships rooted in mutual trust and shared values; and it will require a renewed commitment to the principles of peace, law, self-determination, and equality for Israelis and Palestinians.

* The letter is led by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Jack Reed (D-RI).

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Authors

Patrick Gaspard

President and Chief Executive Officer, Center for American Progress

@patrickgaspard

Allison McManus

Managing Director, National Security and International Policy

Department

National Security and International Policy

Advancing progressive national security policies that are grounded in respect for democratic values: accountability, rule of law, and human rights.

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