President Joe Biden, joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, delivers remarks on the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel in the State Dining Room of the White House October 10, 2023 in Washington, DC. On October 7, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched the largest surprise attack from Gaza in a generation, sending thousands of missiles and an unknown number of fighters by land, who shot and kidnapped Israelis in communities near the Gaza border. The attack prompted retaliatory strikes on Gaza and a declaration of war by the Israeli prime minister. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden wants a returning Congress to take “urgent action” on Israel’s security needs after Hamas militants have injured and killed thousands beginning with Saturday’s brutal attack, including the deaths of 14 Americans.
U.S. citizens are also among the hostages taken into Gaza by the armed group, though the administration could not confirm the exact number Tuesday. The location of at least 20 missing Americans is unknown.
Both the administration and bipartisan members of Congress pledged unified support for Israel, but many lawmakers believe they cannot introduce or pass legislation until the U.S. House reinstates a speaker. House Republicans were meeting behind closed doors Tuesday night to hear from the leading candidates, Ohio’s Jim Jordan and Louisiana’s Steve Scalise.
The administration is poised to send available security assistance to its key ally in the Middle East, Biden said Tuesday following a phone call with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that ended just after 1 p.m. Eastern.
Biden said he told the Israeli leader that the U.S. response “would be swift, decisive and overwhelming.”
“In this moment, we must be crystal clear: We stand with Israel. We stand with Israel. And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself and respond to this attack,” Biden said from the State Dining Room as Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken stood behind him.
“There’s no justification for terrorism. There’s no excuse. Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination. Its stated purpose is the annihilation of Israel and the murder of Jewish people.”
Blinken will travel to Israel and Jordan beginning Thursday to meet with government officials, according to the State Department.
Despite dysfunction in the U.S. House, the majority of members have vowed that reaffirming commitment to Israel will be among their first actions once a speaker is elected.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, told reporters Monday evening that he supported a major aid package.
“It’s going to be a substantial, substantial amount of money, because I think we’re all appalled by what we’re seeing taking place there,” Diaz-Balart said. “This is an attack on civilians, this is not an attack on military facilities.”
Air and ground attacks
Hamas militants based in the Palestinian territory of Gaza launched air and ground attacks on multiple Israeli cities and villages beginning Saturday.
The conflict erupted into a full-fledged war Sunday after Netanyahu formally declared Operation Swords of Iron, which included air strikes and cutting power to Gaza, in response to the surprise attacks.
The United Nations High Commissioner Volker Türk warned against an “indiscriminate or disproportionate” retaliation against the Gaza population by Israel and expressed concern over the blocking of food, water and fuel supplies.
The Israeli death toll rose to over 1,000 Tuesday, according to the White House. Israeli news outlet Haaretz has reported that 2,400 were injured. More than 605 were hospitalized as of Monday night, Israel’s Ministry of Health reported.
Just over 4,250 Palestinians have been injured and 830 killed in Gaza since the conflict began, according to an update Tuesday from the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Hamas has threatened to broadcast killings of hostages in response to Israel striking targets in the Gaza strip, according to Qatar-based news outlet Al Jazeera.
Hamas is holding between 100 and 150 people captive, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan said Monday.
Israel’s government press office did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for further information.
Resolution of support
Bipartisan leaders of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas and ranking Democrat Gregory W. Meeks of New York, introduced a resolution Tuesday condemning the Hamas attacks and reaffirming the U.S. commitment to aid Israel.
In a written statement, McCaul said he expected it to be one of the first items the House would take up after electing a new speaker.
Meeks added that the bipartisan resolution would show that support for Israel is an area of consensus in the deeply divided chamber.
According to a list provided by McCaul’s office, 390 House members have signed on to cosponsor the resolution. The list includes Democrats who have voted against military funding for Israel.
It’s unclear if the House could even consider a resolution — let alone a bill with new aid spending for Israel — without an elected speaker.
All Democrats and eight Republicans voted to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, from the position last week. Republicans are scheduled to vote as early as Wednesday behind closed doors, but there is no guarantee that any candidate will quickly reach a majority.
Asked if it was possible to bring an Israel aid bill to the floor without a speaker, Diaz-Balart, a senior appropriator, said no.
“Every day that we don’t have a speaker is a potential tragedy,” he said.
‘Hamas must be eradicated’
Most members of the House and Senate have expressed support for Israel in some way since the war began.
Several members of both parties have called for supporting strong retaliation by Israel.
“There can be no cease-fire, negotiated solution or peaceful coexistence with depraved barbarians who murder teen-aged girls, children & the elderly and then dump them in the streets of Gaza so bloodthirsty crowds can desecrate their bodies?” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, posted on X, formerly Twitter.
“Hamas must be eradicated & Israel must respond DISPROPORTIONATELY to this & to any (future) attacks from any enemy,” he added.
“This is the largest attack in Israel in 50 years,” Florida Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz posted.
“The response will be the largest response in 50 years. Blame Hamas. They knew Israel would respond in kind. They didn’t care that this would get people in Gaza killed.”
Some progressives hold out
Some members of House Democrats’ progressive wing remained critical of Israeli policies and called for a cease-fire, rather than backing Israel’s offensive into Gaza.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, reposted a criticism of Moskowitz, saying the Floridian was advocating for collective punishment of Palestinian civilians rather than targeting Hamas.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat and the only current member of Congress of Palestinian descent, said in a Sunday statement she grieved for lives lost on both sides of the conflict.
Tlaib said she would work “for a just future where everyone can live in peace,” but blamed Israel’s policies, which she called “the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance.”
“The failure to recognize the violent reality of living under siege, occupation, and apartheid makes no one safer,” she said. “No person, no child anywhere should have to suffer or live in fear of violence. We cannot ignore the humanity in each other. As long as our country provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government, this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue.”
Tlaib, Omar — the first two Muslim women elected to Congress — and other members of the progressive “squad” in the House, including Cori Bush of Missouri, did not cosponsor the Israel resolution authored by McCaul and Meeks.
Asked Tuesday about views like those expressed by Tlaib and Omar, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre offered a strong rebuke without naming any individual members of Congress.
“We believe they’re wrong, we believe they’re repugnant and we believe they’re disgraceful,” she said from the White House briefing room. “There are not two sides here. President Biden has been clear on where he stood.”
Schumer cuts Asia trip short
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is the highest ranking Jewish U.S. official, spoke with Israeli President Isaac Herzog during a trip by a congressional delegation to East Asia, according to a statement from the New York Democrat’s office.
Schumer told Herzog he “stands ready to do whatever it takes to ensure Israel has the resources it needs.”
Republican Sens. Mike Crapo of Idaho and John Kennedy and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Democratic Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Jon Ossoff of Georgia are also on the trip and participated in the call, the release said. The delegation planned to return Thursday, earlier than originally scheduled, “in light of the tragic events unfolding in Israel,” a Schumer spokeswoman said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also announced a confirmation hearing for Jacob Lew to be ambassador to Israel. Tom Nides, the previous Senate-confirmed ambassador to Israel stepped down in July.
Republicans, Tester call for withdrawing Iran funds
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have called on the Biden administration to rescind the $6 billion in unfrozen sanctioned funds sent to Iran in September after a prisoner swap between Iran and the U.S., fearing the money could be used to fund Hamas militants.
“To stand by and allow Iran access to these funds as Hamas infiltrates Israel and murders, rapes, and mutilates countless Israelis is unconscionable. Your administration claims these funds are only available for humanitarian use, but money is fungible, and there is a significant risk they could be used to further efforts by Iran or Hamas against Israel,” read a letter led by Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and co-signed by 18 GOP colleagues.
Indiana Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican, said “Iran knew they had $6 billion coming their way, and that windfall freed up resources to plan and execute the heinous terrorist attack from Hamas against our greatest ally in the region, Israel. The U.S. should freeze these funds immediately and permanently.”
He added that he doesn’t care what deal Biden struck with Iran “in his foolish attempt to reconcile with a country that chants ‘Death to America’ in its parliament, but our message should be unambiguous: If you slaughter our ally’s civilians, you are our enemy, and you’re not getting a damn cent out of us.”
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Tuesday at the White House press briefing that the U.S. does not have intelligence confirming Iran’s involvement.
White House officials have also said that the $6 billion can be used only for humanitarian purposes. Sullivan said that none of it has been spent, further distancing that funding from any aid Iran has provided to Hamas.
Pentagon sends aid
American military planes will be landing in Israel in the coming days, and the U.S. is prepared to move additional security assets in the region, Sullivan said.
The Pentagon on Sunday announced U.S. ships would be moving closer to Israel.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin directed the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group to the Eastern Mediterranean. The group includes the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford and the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy, as well as three guided missile destroyers.
Austin also said the Pentagon is augmenting U.S. Air Force F-35, F-15, F-16, and A-10 fighter aircraft squadrons in the region.
“The U.S. maintains ready forces globally to further reinforce this deterrence posture if required,” Austin said in a statement Sunday.
“In addition, the United States government will be rapidly providing the Israel Defense Forces with additional equipment and resources, including munitions. The first security assistance will begin moving today and arriving in the coming days.”
Israel is already the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since the state was established following World War II.
As of March, cumulative funding to Israel totaled $158 billion in current dollars not adjusted for inflation. The majority of the funding has been for military assistance.
Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya, or Islamic Resistance Movement, is the “largest and most capable” militant organization in the Palestinian territories, according to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center.
The State Department designated the group as a terrorist organization in 1997.
–Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.
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