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Lawmakers made history on Jan. 16 by centering Palestinian human rights during a debate and vote on the Senate floor. The majority of senators voted against a resolution that would increase accountability and address U.S. complicity in human rights violations committed in the Israel-Gaza war, as well as other conflicts around the world. Still, there is cause for hope.  

The resolution, S.Res.504, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT), invoked Sec. 502B(c) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. Though rarely used, this law requires the State Department to submit a report to Congress within 30 days on the human rights conditions of a country to which the United States provides aid. If the government fails to comply, or if the country in question exhibits a pattern of gross human rights violations, the law prohibits U.S. security assistance—including arms sales—to that country.  

Sen Bernie Sanders S502B

This type of accountability is vital, as open calls for a ceasefire by more than 60 members of Congress have not prevented U.S. aid from directly assisting Israel’s brutal attacks in Gaza.

Thanks to the tireless work of advocates and #CeasefireNow coalition partners, the Jan. 16 vote was the first time in U.S. history that Congress engaged in a high-profile debate on U.S. complicity in human rights violations by the Israeli government. It was also the first time this particular law was used to do so, breaking what FCNL’s Hassan El-Tayyab calls a “congressional glass ceiling.”

Eleven senators voted in favor of the resolution, including Sens. Laphonza Butler (CA), Martin Heinrich (NM), Mazie Hirono (HI), Ben Ray Lujan (NM), Ed Markey (MA), Jeff Merkley (OR), Rand Paul (KY), Bernie Sanders (VT), Chris Van Hollen (MD), Elizabeth Warren (MA), and Peter Welch (VT). Sen. Brian Schatz (HI) was unable to attend the proceedings and vote for the resolution on Jan. 16, but later released a statement in support. 

In just over three months, Israeli forces have killed more than 24,000 Palestinians in Gaza, 70% of whom are women and children. Over 70% of its buildings have been destroyed or damaged. This massive destruction and violence are largely fueled by unconditional U.S. support of Israel via weapons and aid, paid by taxpayers.

The latest report by a consortium of 15 development organizations and the UN found that the entire population of Gaza is now in crisis or faces acute hunger, and is at risk of famine in the next six weeks. 

Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented egregious violations of international humanitarian law by the Israeli military. President Joe Biden even acknowledged that Israel is carrying out “indiscriminate bombings” in Gaza, a clear breach of the laws of war, yet the United States continues to provide funding, weapons, and diplomatic cover for Israel. We are complicit in these war crimes. 

The Jan. 16 vote was the first time in U.S. history that Congress engaged in a high-profile debate on U.S. complicity in human rights violations by the Israeli government. 

Despite the resolution failing, the Jan. 16 debate and vote did what Congress has been unable to do for decades. It got lawmakers on record supporting greater accountability and created a space to build on the endorsements with more education and engagement.  

The move also increased pressure on President Biden, the administration, and Israel to prioritize human rights—timely, as the president urges Congress to appropriate an additional $14 billion to support Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Since Oct. 7, the Biden administration has also sidestepped congressional oversight by pushing through two emergency arms transfers to Israel, worth more than $200 million. 

In a recent statement, Sen. Sanders called on Congress to no longer fund “[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s illegal and immoral war against the Palestinian people.” He added that U.S. taxpayers must no longer be complicit in destroying the lives of innocent men, women, and children in Gaza.  

His resolution, as well as the support of lawmakers who are finally taking steps toward ending this gruesome war, moves us closer to a more positive reality. 

During an impassioned floor speech, Sanders stated why it is “imperative that Congress have the information that this resolution requests.” We hope the use of this important human rights provision of U.S. law will lead to more accountability votes in Congress.

Odeliya Matter

Odeliya Matter

Program Assistant for Middle East Policy (2023-2024)

Odeliya Matter is a program assistant for the Middle East Policy team.