US Senate passes bill giving Israel £13bn in wartime aid

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US Senate passes bill giving Israel £13bn in wartime aid

Biden said the approval 'comes at a moment of grave urgency, with Israel facing unprecedented attacks from Iran'

President Biden. Courtesy: White House
President Biden. Courtesy: White House

After months of debate, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved emergency defence assistance for Israel and humanitarian aid to Gaza — but with a vote that demonstrated an erosion in the body’s once near-unanimous support for Israel aid.

The House approved the £20bn Israel-Gaza bill on Saturday in a 366-58 vote, along with separate bills providing aid to Ukraine and Taiwan. £17bn is earmarked for Israel and £7bn is for humanitarian relief in Gaza.

The package also includes £322m in grants for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which funds security measures for US synagogues and other Jewish community institutions.

The package of bills, in their totality, closely resembles a £76m Senate foreign aid bill passed in February. The Senate may approve the House package as soon as Tuesday, and President Joe Biden, who called for the additional aid, is expected to sign it.

The lopsided margin in favour of Israel aid showed that the country still retains strong support in Congress despite growing criticism of U.S. support for its military campaign in Gaza. That dissent was reflected in “no” votes from 37 Democrats and 21 Republicans, in addition to seven representatives who withheld their votes.

Those numbers were bound to make Israel advocates uneasy: Among the Democratic nays were members who have been reliable votes for Israel assistance, including two Jewish lawmakers — Reps. Becca Balint of Vermont and Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who were among the first Jewish lawmakers to call for a ceasefire.

And among Republicans, Kentucky’s Thomas Massie had long been the lone congressman voting “no” on pro-Israel measures. This time, 20 others joined him.

By contrast, a 2021 vote to fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system passed 420-9 — a margin that itself, at the time, stirred controversy.

Biden welcomed the passage of the assistance, which he had requested almost as soon as Hamas launched its war against Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking approximately 250 hostage. In a statement, Biden said the approval “comes at a moment of grave urgency, with Israel facing unprecedented attacks from Iran, and Ukraine under continued bombardment from Russia.”

The aid package comes after U.S. forces led a coalition that helped Israel repel a recent massive Iranian drone and missile attack. It also passed as the Biden administration is expected to announce a withdrawal of funding for an Israeli army unit alleged to have abused Palestinians, an unprecedented action.

In Congress, the number of progressive Democrats criticising Israel has increased as the Palestinian death toll in the war has mounted. It now exceeds 33,000, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. Israel says about a third of the dead are combatants. More than 250 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the invasion.

Among those voting against the package were lawmakers — including Raskin, Balint, Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Oregon and Rep. Ro Khanna of California — who have been endorsed by J Street, the liberal Israel lobby, which itself endorsed the defense assistance.

“J Street strongly supports funding for the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Iron Beam missile defence systems,” it said in its statement on Saturday. “Iran’s attack on Israel last weekend demonstrated the importance of funding these defensive systems and resupplying Israel’s diminished stocks.”

Balint said she could not vote for the package while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains committed to invading Rafah, a city on Gaza’s border with Egypt where Hamas remains a substantial presence, and where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge.

“This was an opportunity to make a very strong statement about how there needs to be a course correction when it comes to Netanyahu’s war in Gaza,” she told MSNBC after the vote.

A number of Republicans who voted against the aid package cast their nays in pro-Israel terms, citing the package’s funds for humanitarian assistance in Gaza. Members including Chip Roy of Texas and Ryan Zinke of Montana said they were certain the money would reach Hamas.

“No aid for Gaza until an unconditional surrender and release of hostages,” Zinke said.

Rep. Mike Johnson, the Louisiana Republican who is speaker, was emphatic that money would not reach Hamas.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there about the bill,” Johnson told reporters after the bill’s package. “We also have language that prevents any of the funding going to Hamas, or any other bad actors.”

Notably, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC explained its support in part by citing the humanitarian assistance for Palestinians. “The bill helps Israel protect its families from Iran and its proxies, helps create American jobs, and sends humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza,” it said in a tweet after the vote.

Other Republicans who opposed the bill insisted that Israel aid be offset by spending cuts elsewhere — a position that once was unthinkable in Congress. “I have concerns about all deficit spending when sending money to any country, even if that country is a great ally or under attack,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, said on Instagram.

Johnson pushed all of the aid bills through by separating them into separate components. Following the Senate vote in February, resistance to the Ukraine aid from Republicans and to the Israel aid from some progressive Democrats had threatened to tank the package in the House.

The Ukraine aid drew opposition from more than 100 Republicans, but all of the bills in the package passed. The manoeuvring earned Johnson rare bipartisan praise.

“It was long overdue, as the Senate passed a similar package months ago,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Jewish Florida Democrat. “Yet I welcome Speaker Johnson’s decision to end this horribly harmful holdup.”

But Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the most outspoken opponents of Ukraine aid, called on Johnson to resign, or she would initiate steps to oust him.

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