Democratic lawmakers tell Biden evidence shows Israel is restricting Gaza aid

A worker unloads humanitarian aid near Erez Crossing in northern Gaza

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scores of lawmakers from U.S. President Joe Biden's Democratic Party told him on Friday that they believe there is sufficient evidence to show that Israel has violated U.S. law by restricting humanitarian aid flows into war-stricken Gaza.

A letter to Biden signed by 86 House of Representatives Democrats said Israel's aid restrictions "call into question" its assurances that it was complying with a U.S. Foreign Assistance Act provision requiring recipients of U.S.-funded arms to uphold international humanitarian law and allow free flows of U.S. assistance.

Such written assurances were mandated by a national security memorandum that Biden issued in February after Democratic lawmakers began questioning if Israel was upholding international law in its Gaza operations.

The lawmakers said the Israeli government had resisted repeated U.S. requests to open enough sea and land routes for aid to Gaza, and cited reports that it failed to allow in enough food to avert famine, enforced "arbitrary restrictions" on aid and imposed an inspection system that impeded supplies.

"We expect the administration to ensure (Israel's) compliance with existing law and to take all conceivable steps to prevent further humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza," the lawmakers wrote.

Biden's memorandum requires that Secretary of State Antony Blinken report to Congress by Wednesday on whether he finds credible Israel's assurances that its use of U.S. arms adheres to international law.

At least four State Department bureaus advised Blinken last month that they found Israel's assurances "neither credible nor reliable."

If Israel's assurances are questioned, Biden would have the option to "remediate" the situation through actions ranging from seeking fresh assurances to suspending U.S. arms transfers, according to the memorandum.

UN SAYS FAMINE ADVANCING IN GAZA

Israel denies violating international law and limiting aid in its war against Gaza's ruling Hamas militants, which was triggered by their Oct. 7 onslaught into Israel in which they killed more than 1,200 people and seized more than 200 hostages.

More than 34,000 Palestinians have died in nearly seven months of fighting, according to Gaza's health ministry, which has devastated the coastal enclave and left most of the population of 2.3 million displaced amid dire food and water shortages.

U.N. World Food Program Executive Director Cindy McCain told NBC News that there was now "full-blown famine" in northern Gaza.

In excerpts of an interview to be aired on Sunday on Meet the Press, McCain told NBC that she hoped for a ceasefire accord so that more aid could be delivered faster.

"There is famine – full-blown famine – in the north, and it's moving its way south. And so what we're asking for and what we've continually asked for is a ceasefire and the ability to have unfettered access," said McCain, the widow of the late Senator John McCain.

U.S. officials say that while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has taken steps that have boosted aid deliveries, the amounts remain insufficient.

The lawmakers also condemned Hamas' Oct. 7 attack in their letter, endorsed Israel's right to exist and expressed support for U.S. efforts to broker a ceasefire and a second hostage release.

Israel, they noted, recently opened more aid routes and crossing points into Gaza that have allowed in more aid trucks.

But the lawmakers expressed "serious concerns" over Israel's conduct of the war "as it pertains to the deliberate withholding of humanitarian aid."

They urged Biden "to make clear" to Netanyahu "that so long as Israel restricts, directly or indirectly" aid to Gaza "the Israeli government is risking its eligibility for further offensive security assistance from the U.S."

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)