On Gaza, Democrats Are Talking One Way but Walking Another

As public disapproval of Israel’s war on Gaza grows, it has become increasingly common for elected Democrats to criticize Israel. Nevertheless, the vast majority of them just voted for a bill that cements support for the onslaught as official US policy.

Gazans walk among extensive destruction in the vicinity of al-Shifa Hospital in the neighborhood of al-Rimal, Gaza, on April 2, 2024. (Dawoud Abo Alkas / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Most Americans no longer support Israel’s assault on Gaza. While half of US adults approved of it five months ago, only 36 percent do now according to a Gallup survey released Wednesday. Disapproval increased ten percentage points, including twelve points among Democrats. As of this month, 75 percent of Democratic voters disapprove of Israel’s actions.

This drastic shift in public opinion may have prompted a change in what elected Democrats say — criticism of Israel has gone from rare to commonplace — but it hasn’t changed what they do. The overwhelming majority of Democrats just voted for a bill that cements aiding and abetting genocide as official US policy.

A Pro-Israel Bill by Any Other Name

The public didn’t have much time to see what was in the $1.2 trillion spending bill before it was enacted last weekend. In the span of three days, the text of the 1,012-page legislation was unveiled by congressional leaders, approved by the House and Senate, then signed into law by President Joe Biden.

Both parties provided summaries of the bill. Republicans said it’s mostly for funding the US and Israeli militaries; Democrats characterized it more or less as a welfare bill. The GOP description is more honest.

First, 70 percent of the bill’s $1.2 trillion in funding is for the Pentagon. Second, the bill’s most politically explosive and consequential aspects relate to Israel.

The GOP mentioned the country in the title of its press release and sixteen times in its summary of the bill. But the House and Senate Democrats’ press releases don’t mention Israel at all. It’s not even mentioned in their budget recaps for the State Department, which funds the bulk of Israeli military aid. (Democrats were transparent about this funding in last year’s funding summaries.)

Clearly, Democratic elected officials were afraid to cop to the contents of the bill — which gives Israel billions of dollars in weapons, defunds critical humanitarian operations in Gaza, and firmly rejects international calls for the prevention of genocide in Gaza.

Flouting International Consensus

On January 26, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to prevent genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. In the two months that followed, Israel killed at least 6,407 Palestinians (bringing the total over 30,000), injured 10,402, and bombed another four hospitals out of commission. Only ten of Gaza’s thirty-six hospitals remain at least partially functional.

The US spending bill encourages these genocidal acts by providing Israel with $3.8 billion in military aid — $3.3 billion from the State Department’s budget (p. 867) and $500 million from the Pentagon’s (p. 103). The extent to which Israel has destroyed Gaza and killed its people is largely the product of the United States’ willingness to finance it. Israel could not exact this level of devastation on its own.

The ICJ also ruled that “Israel must take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” Israel has continued to obstruct the flow of aid into Gaza, a fact acknowledged by various international organizations and the US government itself. Since January 26, the number of Palestinians facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity increased from 378,000 to 1.1 million. Famine has already begun in some areas in Gaza and is imminent everywhere else. The US spending bill defunds the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, (p. 1010) the largest and most capable provider of humanitarian aid in Gaza.

On March 28, the ICJ issued another binding order on Israel because since January 26, “the catastrophic living conditions of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have deteriorated further, in particular in view of the prolonged and widespread deprivation of food and other basic necessities.” The ICJ’s binding orders also require Israel to “prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide” against Palestinians. In a cruel and unbelievably petty display, the US spending bill conditions economic aid to the Palestinian Authority on the basis of it “acting to counter incitement of violence against Israelis” (p. 859).

The bill is generally hostile toward international law and human rights. It prohibits economic aid to Palestine if it becomes a member state of the UN or obtains the same standing as one without Israel’s approval, or if it initiates (or even supports) an investigation by the International Criminal Court into Israeli crimes against Palestinians (p. 875). It also sanctions the UN Human Rights Council if it doesn’t relegate Israel’s abuses to a lower spot on its agenda (p. 936) and bars funding for a UN investigation into Israeli human rights abuses (p. 938).

Which Side Are You On?

That this bill passed with overwhelming Democratic support belies the party’s increasingly vocal criticisms of Israel’s behavior and expressed concern for compliance with US and international law.

For example, Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and sixteen other Democratic senators released a statement on March 22 calling on Biden to rule that Israel is obstructing US humanitarian aid to Gaza, in violation of a national security memorandum the president himself issued in February. This memorandum and existing US law bars the provision of US military aid to any country that restricts US humanitarian aid. Section 620I of the Foreign Assistance Act says: “No assistance shall be furnished . . . to any country when it is made known to the President that the government of such country prohibits or otherwise restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance.” Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi referenced this law in a recent interview with CNN. “In our own law, when we give assistance to a country, we insist that they do not interfere with our giving humanitarian aid,” she said.

But sixteen of the seventeen signatories to Van Hollen’s letter ended up voting for the spending bill. Hours after the vote, Van Hollen was on Twitter, pretending like he didn’t just vote to approve $3.8 billion in unconditional military aid to Israel. Holding up the letter he sent Biden, Van Hollen said Israel “continues to arbitrarily restrict the flow of aid to 2.2 million desperate people in Gaza.” Pelosi voted for the legislation too.

In the House, all but twenty-two Democrats voted for the bill. In the Senate, all but two did, and one technically isn’t a Democrat (Bernie Sanders, I-VT). The other, Michael Bennet (D-CO), said he voted against the bill because it doesn’t have any military aid for Ukraine (even though it does — see p. 149).

Marching in Lockstep

The recently passed spending bill is a wholesale endorsement of Israel’s genocide of Palestinians, a blatant attack on international law, and a moral abomination. And more than 90 percent of Democrats in Congress just voted for it.

There are no excuses. Democrats weren’t forced to vote for it. Even if they had been, most have already endorsed its most gruesome policies.

Biden’s foreign aid bill also includes language to defund UNRWA and would give Israel another $14.1 billion in weapons. The Senate passed it in February, with only three members of the Democratic Caucus — Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Peter Welch (D-VT), and Sanders — opposed.

House Republicans haven’t allowed a vote on the foreign aid bill, for reasons unrelated to Israel. Desperate to find a workaround, Democratic leaders are trying to force a vote on the bill using an obscure procedural mechanism called a discharge petition. So far, 190 Democrats have signed on.