Why America Isn’t Using Its Leverage with Israel

On Sunday, Vice-President Kamala Harris said that the Israeli government “must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid [into Gaza]. No excuses.” This marked perhaps the Biden Administration’s most forceful push to encourage Israel to allow more food and medicine into the territory, where more than thirty thousand people have been killed since the war that began after Hamas killed some twelve hundred Israelis on October 7th. The Biden Administration also announced that it had begun airdrops of food aid to the people of Gaza, but the humanitarian crisis there continues to worsen. A World Health Organization team in Gaza recently found “severe levels of malnutrition, children dying of starvation, serious shortages of fuel, food and medical supplies, hospital buildings destroyed.”

I recently spoke by phone with Senator Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat. In January, Van Hollen visited the Rafah border crossing and raised alarms about the inspection process, as well as what he said was obstruction by the Israeli government. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the different ways that the Israeli government is preventing adequate aid from reaching civilians, whether the Biden Administration’s policy toward Israel is in the process of changing, and the scale of the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Where are we right now in terms of getting aid to the people in Gaza? What is preventing that aid from reaching them in sufficient levels?

Well, we’re nowhere near where we need to be. We now have hundreds of thousands of people on the verge of starvation. We also passed the grisly marker where at least fifteen children have died of starvation, so the situation has gone from bad to worse. The primary cause has been the continued restrictions on assistance by the Netanyahu government. It’s pretty startling that we have got to the point where the United States has to provide airdrops into Gaza as a measure to try to feed some people. I support it totally, but it’s obviously inadequate to meet the needs, as the President himself has indicated.

Why do you believe the Netanyahu government is responsible for the lack of aid reaching civilians in Gaza?

Well, I think it’s clear from following the situation that the Netanyahu government could allow many more trucks to cross into Gaza, both through Kerem Shalom and through Rafah. If you look at any graph over time of the number of trucks going through, you can see big drops to under a hundred trucks as recently as February, and at the same time, you have people like [Minister of Finance] Bezalel Smotrich holding up flour at the Port of Ashdod for at least five weeks, despite the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu promised President Biden that that flour would go to hungry, starving people. That’s just one example. You also have [Minister of National Security] Itamar Ben-Gvir indicating that he would not allow police to clear protesters who were blocking trucks at the Kerem Shalom crossing.

These are Israeli protesters intentionally trying to block aid trucks from crossing into Gaza, correct?

Right. There’s also the issue of continued arbitrary denial of things like maternity kits from being able to cross into Gaza on the claim that somehow a maternity kit is a dual-use item, and that also holds true with other items like water purifiers and things that clearly are not dual use. [Dual-use items are items which could potentially be used for military purposes, aside from their intended purposes.] When there’s one of those items on the truck, the whole truck has to be turned around and go back to the start, which is now taking up to several weeks in some cases.

You mentioned that you could fill us in more about the issue with Smotrich. What was it you were going to say?

So, this was a shipment of flour from Turkey that was at the port of Ashdod, and had enough flour to feed hundreds of thousands of people for weeks. Smotrich intervened and refused to allow the flour to be transferred because he didn’t want the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to be able to distribute it, even though we know that UNRWA has been the primary distribution system for aid in Gaza. I should point out that Ambassador David Satterfield, our humanitarian envoy, has said repeatedly that he has received zero evidence from the Netanyahu government that U.N.-distributed aid has been diverted to Hamas. But Smotrich was holding this up, claiming that he didn’t want it to go through UNRWA, and so the flour has to be transferred to the World Food Program, but before it could be released to the World Food Program, UNRWA had to pay delay charges for the time that it was sitting in the port of Ashdod because Smotrich had not allowed it to be delivered, and when UNRWA went to make that payment, it was rejected by the Israeli bank that refused to accept a payment from UNRWA.

The Israelis have said that there were some members of UNRWA who participated in the October 7th attacks. But it’s also the main aid agency for Palestinians who are facing these desperate conditions, correct?

Well, that’s right. UNRWA in Gaza is an organization of thirteen thousand people that provides schooling to Palestinians. It provides health care to Palestinians. The government of Israel says that up to fourteen members of UNRWA out of the thirteen thousand participated in the awful October 7th attacks. The U.N. has its independent investigative arm reviewing that, and other countries who have looked at it have determined that Palestinians, innocent Palestinian civilians, should not be punished by denying aid through UNRWA. I will say, having reviewed the classified report from the Biden Administration, my view is that, of course, anybody engaged in October 7th needs to be held totally accountable, but that innocent Palestinians in Gaza should not be denied food that can be distributed through UNRWA.

What is the perspective of the Administration, which paused new funding for UNRWA in the meantime?

Right, so the Administration has not said that UNRWA should not continue to deliver aid in Gaza. The Administration has said that it was going to pause new funding for UNRWA in Gaza until the U.N. completed its reports, but that is a separate issue than allowing UNRWA to continue to distribute aid to starving people in Gaza.

Am I correct that there is a law on the books in America which says that “funds appropriated or otherwise made available for United States assistance may not be made available for any country whose government prohibits or otherwise restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance?”

You cited that exactly right, and the President, just within the last couple of days, said, and I’m quoting, “We’re going to insist that Israel facilitate more trucks and more routes to get more and more people the help they need. No excuses, because the truth is aid flowing to Gaza is nowhere nearly enough now. It’s nowhere nearly enough.” I will say that I’ve been flabbergasted that the Administration has not invoked and implemented the law you just cited, which is called the Humanitarian Aid Corridor Act.

When you quoted the President as saying he would “insist” on this, what do you think that means?

I think the President is saying that he’s going to demand that more routes be open and more desperately needed assistance can get in, but it is important that the Administration use the tools that are at its disposal to do that, and one of those tools is invoking and implementing the Humanitarian Aid Corridor Act.

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