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Senators, protesters assail Blinken over Biden administration's Israel policy

Published 05/21/2024, 11:19 AM
Updated 05/22/2024, 05:32 PM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the State Department in Washington, U.S., May 17, 2024. REUTERS/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/File Photo

By Patricia Zengerle, Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced criticism from the right and left over Israel policy in Congress on Tuesday, with Republicans accusing the Biden administration of failing Israel and Democrats saying it's doing too little to help civilians in Gaza.

Furious protesters interrupted Blinken as he began his testimony before two committees in the Democratic-controlled Senate, calling him a war criminal and accusing him of involvement in genocide.

At the first hearing, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Blinken flinched from a protester who approached him from behind, waving a sign that said "criminal," before security officers carried her out of the room.

Blinken reiterated the support of President Joe Biden's administration for Israel, but insisted it was focused on easing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and opposed an Israeli assault on Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza where over 1 million displaced people had taken shelter.

"When it comes to making sure that Israel has everything it needs to defend itself, no one has, no one will do more than President Biden," Blinken said, pushing back against Republican accusations that Washington's pause on a weapons shipment to Israel was weakening it in its war against the Hamas militant group that rules the enclave.

"At the same time when it comes to Rafah we've been very clear in many conversations with Israeli leadership over the past months about our deep concerns about a major military operation in Rafah and the impact that that would have on civilians," he said.

Blinken appeared later on Tuesday before the Senate appropriations subcommittee, which oversees diplomatic and foreign aid spending.

He returns to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for two more rounds of testimony at hearings of the Republican-led House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and a House appropriations subcommittee.

Republicans criticized Biden for saying this month that he would delay a shipment of bombs to Israel and consider withholding others if Israeli forces launched a major invasion of Rafah, a refugee-packed city in southern Gaza.

Billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance remain in the pipeline for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

Republicans also called for action in response to the International Criminal Court prosecutor's announcement on Monday that he had requested arrest warrants for Netanyahu and his defense minister over alleged war crimes in the Gaza conflict. The prosecutor, Karim Khan, also sought arrest warrants for three Hamas leaders.

Blinken said the Biden administration would be happy to work with Congress to formulate a response to what he called "a profoundly wrong-headed decision" regarding the warrants for the Israeli leaders.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, who chairs the foreign relations panel, also criticized the ICC. "I see it as a step in the wrong direction," Cardin said.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS IN GAZA

Biden also faced criticism from some of his fellow Democrats, who want him to do more - including putting conditions on arms exports - to push Netanyahu's government to protect Palestinian civilians. Israel is fighting to wipe out Hamas, which attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Palestinian authorities say more than 35,000 people have been killed during Israel's campaign in Gaza, many of them women and children. Malnutrition is widespread and much of the coastal enclave's population has been left homeless and much of its infrastructure has been destroyed.

"I've been especially concerned about the restrictions placed on the delivery of humanitarian assistance to two million Palestinians who have nothing to do with Hamas," Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said.

Israel-related demonstrations have become a feature of congressional appearances by Biden administration officials. When Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified on Oct. 31 about Biden's request for security assistance for Ukraine and Israel, protesters repeatedly interrupted them.

Protests over Gaza have intensified across the U.S. since then, including on college campuses where there have been dozens of arrests, raising concerns about how they might affect Biden's campaign for reelection against former Republican President Donald Trump.

© Reuters. Pro-Palestinian protesters hold up red hands as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before a House Appropriations State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee hearing on President Biden’s proposed budget request for the Department of State, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 22, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

A $95 billion foreign aid package for Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and humanitarian needs finally passed Congress in April after being stalled for months by Republicans unhappy about the billions of dollars in assistance Washington has sent Kyiv as it battles Russian invaders.

The package only passed the House because a majority of Democrats supported it, and the parties remain divided over how much more help Washington should provide to Ukraine.

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