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US lawmakers go on pro-Israel offensive at Blinken hearing

At briefing with top US diplomat, Democrats and Republicans take turns to voice support and call for more military aid for Israel
Rubble of homes destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza, 23 May (Reuters)
By Ali Harb in Washington

At a time when Palestinian rights advocates are hailing an apparent shift in US public opinion when it comes to Washington's support for Israel, lawmakers from both major parties are demonstrating the overwhelming backing Israel still enjoys from Congress.

At a hearing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday, Republican and Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee took turns to praise Israel and condemn Hamas and other Palestinian factions after Israel's latest offensive on Gaza. 

Multiple legislators called for additional assistance for the Israeli military, with Republicans citing the situation in Gaza to rebuke the Biden administration's diplomacy with Iran over its alleged support to Hamas.

Congressman Brad Sherman, a senior Democrat, set the tone early when he accused Hamas of war crimes for firing rockets towards Israel and asked Blinken about the status of supplemental assistance to the Israeli military to "replenish" Israel's missile defence system, the Iron Dome.

'As a democracy, Israel also has an extra burden to do everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties'

- Antony Blinken

"Unfortunately, we won't bring criminals to international justice, but we can prevent those crimes in the future by replenishing Iron Dome," Sherman said.

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In fact, Washington is opposed to the idea of international justice in Israel-Palestine. The US administration, with congressional support, has vehemently rejected a probe by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into possible war crimes by both Israel and Hamas.

In the latest round of fighting, Israeli air strikes killed more than 256 Palestinians, including dozens of children, while rockets fired by Hamas and other groups killed 12 people in Israel.

Last week, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham announced that Israel would request an additional $1bn in American funding for the Iron Dome on top of the $3.8bn it receives annually.

Blinken, on Monday, said Washington is "committed" to providing aid for Israel's missile defence system and is working with Israeli officials to "fully understand their needs".

The push for additional aid comes as progressive and Palestine solidarity activists are calling for restricting US assistance to Israel over its abuses against Palestinians.

Pro-Israel remarks

On Monday, Blinken appeared before Congress to discuss the State Department's proposed budget for next year.

"It (the budget) will support our partners in the Middle East by fully funding our commitments to key countries, including Israel and Jordan, and by restoring humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people," he said in his opening remarks.

Congressman Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, asked Blinken what the State Department can do to counter media coverage critical of Israel, denouncing the New York Times for publishing the photos of children killed in the fighting on its front page on 28 May.

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"Sadly, American media of the left has become a propaganda arm of Hamas terrorists," Wilson said. "Sickening proof of it is the front page of The New York Times 10 days ago."

The top US diplomat refused to comment on the legislator's criticism of the media, saying that he does not engage in politics, only policy.

"It would be unacceptable for any country to have rockets rain down on it indiscriminately targeting civilians and not do something about it," Blinken said. 

"And as you know, we strongly supported Israel's right to defend itself, to defend its people against these indiscriminate rocket attacks. As a democracy, Israel also has an extra burden to do everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties... We also can't lose sight of the fact that lives were lost on both sides."

Throughout Israel's latest offensive on Gaza, President Joe Biden kept reasserting Washington's support for Israel as the US blocked a UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate ceasefire, drawing public expressions of gratitude from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, Republicans continue to push for more pro-Israel policies from the administration. Last week, lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the Senate introduced legislation that would divert US aid for Palestinians to the Israeli military.

Congressman Brian Mast, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said it was "impossible" that US aid to Gaza would not benefit Hamas because the group enjoys popularity amongst Palestinians.

"We're going to give them hundreds of millions of dollars, or invest hundreds of millions of dollars into their infrastructure," Mast said.

The Biden administration has been pushing for increasing humanitarian aid for Palestinians, arguing that assistance to Gaza may help loosen Hamas's grip on power in the besieged enclave and reintegrate the Palestinian Authority into the territory.

But the $360m aid package the administration is preparing for Palestinians is a fraction of the assistance Washington provides to Israel every year.

The Iran question

In response to a similar question by Greg Steube, another Republican, Blinken suggested that the Israeli government itself sees the need for humanitarian relief in Gaza.

"When it comes to reconstruction, there is both a belief and a commitment, I think, on the part of Israel, the United Nations, Egypt, ourselves and others that we can do this in a way that does not result in materials being siphoned off by Hamas to rebuild tunnels or reconstitute more of their rocket force," Blinken said.

Steube went on to press the secretary of state about the Biden administration's diplomatic efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal.

The congressman asked: "How can you say you support Israel's security while wanting to enter a deal where Iran is going to get billions in new weapons?"

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Blinken said Iran's support for Hamas is a "persistent problem" that is happening irrespective of the nuclear deal, but he noted most Palestinian rockets are locally manufactured, not provided by Tehran.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a progressive Democrat, made the only sympathetic remarks to Palestinians at Monday's hearing, grilling Blinken over the administration's rejection of ICC probes in Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan.

"In both of these cases, if domestic courts can't or won't pursue justice - and we oppose the ICC - where do we think the victims of the supposed crimes can go for justice?" Omar asked.

Blinken reasserted Washington's argument that the ICC lacks jurisdiction over Afghanistan and Israel. As for alleged abuses by Israeli and American forces, he added: "Whether it's the United States or Israel, we both have the mechanisms to make sure that there's accountability in any situations where there are concerns about the use of force and human rights."

Human rights groups have long criticised the Israeli government for its failure to probe violations by its forces against Palestinians.

"In light of the decades-long failure by Israeli authorities to rein in serious abuses, the International Criminal Court’s Office of the Prosecutor should investigate and prosecute individuals credibly implicated in the crimes against humanity of apartheid or persecution," Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that asserted that Israel is practising apartheid against Palestinians.

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