You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Sen. Van Hollen: Biden Must Halt Offensive Arms to Israel If Restrictions on Gaza Aid Are Not Lifted

Media Options

Image Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO (right)

We speak with Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland about the U.S. response to Israel’s brutal offensive on Gaza, which has killed over 32,000 Palestinians. Van Hollen expresses “strong frustration with the Biden administration,” which “needs to do a lot more” to hold Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accountable. Defying Biden’s warnings against a full-scale ground operation in Rafah, Netanyahu continues to promise an invasion of the city, where 1.4 million forcibly displaced people from across Gaza are sheltering. “At the end of the day, Prime Minister Netanyahu simply ignores the president of the United States, and so we need to do more to make Netanyahu accountable for our requests,” says Van Hollen, who warns Biden against “getting dragged into the planning of a Rafah invasion” and becoming “complicit in Netanyahu’s actions.” The senator also discusses U.S. funding of UNRWA and Israeli leaders blocking aid for Gaza. “For goodness’ sakes, lift the restrictions that are in place that are creating this humanitarian disaster in Gaza.”

Related Story

StoryNov 02, 2023Ta-Nehisi Coates Speaks Out Against Israel’s “Segregationist Apartheid Regime” After West Bank Visit
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

In Gaza, the Israeli military’s brutal attack on Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital in Gaza, is continuing for the third day. Dozens have been killed, others forced to evacuate amidst intense bombardment and shelling on the hospital and surrounding area. Tens of thousands of wounded and displaced Palestinians have been seeking shelter at Shifa. The Israeli army said in a statement it had, quote, “eliminated” 90 people at the hospital and detained 300. Among those arrested was Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Eliwa. His arrest comes two days after another Al Jazeera journalist, Ismail al-Ghoul, was beaten, stripped naked and detained in the cold for 12 hours before he was released.

Elsewhere in Gaza, 24 people were killed in an Israeli attack at the Kuwait Roundabout, where Palestinians had gathered for aid. Another 27 were killed in an Israeli attack on the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza. Among those killed yesterday was Raed al-Banna, the director of police investigations in northern Gaza, responsible for securing and facilitating the entry of aid trucks into northern Gaza. His death comes one day after Israeli forces killed another senior police officer in Gaza, Faiq Mabhouh, who was in charge of coordinating aid distribution in the north. This comes as the World Health Organization warned Tuesday many infants in Gaza are on the “brink of death” due to the lack of food.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his determination to invade Gaza’s southernmost town, Rafah, where some 1.4 million people from across Gaza have been forcibly displaced. On Monday, Netanyahu agreed in a phone call with President Biden to send a team of Israeli officials to Washington to meet with Biden administration officials, after Biden urged him to find an “alternative approach” to a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah. But on Tuesday, Netanyahu told a parliamentary committee that while he would listen to U.S. proposals “out of respect” for Biden, he said, quote, “We are determined to complete the elimination of these Hamas battalions in Rafah. There’s no way to do this without a ground incursion,” he said.

The official death toll in Gaza is approaching 32,000, with over 74,000 people wounded.

For more, we’re joined by Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. In January, he traveled to the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing. He’s joining us from Kensington, Maryland.

Senator Chris Van Hollen, welcome back to Democracy Now! Thank you so much for joining us. Can you talk about Netanyahu’s threat to launch a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah, and what you want Biden to tell him?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, Amy, it’s good to be with you.

Since my visit to Rafah in January, things have gotten even worse. The situation — the humanitarian situation in Gaza is even more catastrophic. And now, as you said, Prime Minister Netanyahu has said he’s going to ignore President Biden’s requests and launch a full-scale invasion of Rafah.

You know, President Biden was right, in my view, to say that that would be a red line, that you can’t cross it. And so, now it’s going to be very important that the president and the Biden administration back that up and make it clear that they will hold the prime minister accountable.

As you know, the Netanyahu government is going to be sending some officials to Washington this week to discuss how they might go about this Rafah invasion. And I’m very worried, Amy, that the Biden administration will simply get dragged into the planning of this, something that is bound to go terribly wrong, based on what’s happened already in the months of war in Gaza, and then somehow become complicit in Netanyahu’s actions in Rafah. So, I would warn the administration not to get sucked into this, because we’ve seen time and again that at the end of the day, Prime Minister Netanyahu simply ignores the president of the United States. And so we need to do more to make Netanyahu accountable for our requests.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play some of what you said on the Senate floor in February about the withholding of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Kids in Gaza are now dying from the deliberate withholding of food. In addition to the horror of that news, one other thing is true: That is a war crime. It is a textbook war crime. … And that makes those who orchestrate it war criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are you clearly calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a war criminal?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, Amy, I’m calling those who are responsible for these actions, having committed a war crime. And at that moment, it was the moment that we first learned — I learned from Cindy McCain and others — that kids had gone from being on the verge of starvation to having died of starvation. And Smotrich, who is the finance minister, was holding up thousands and thousands of pounds of flour at the Port of Ashdod, flour that could reach starving kids and others in Gaza. Ben-Gvir was calling on, you know, folks down at Kerem Shalom, protesters, to continue to protest, and saying that the police officials should not intervene, and allow the blockage to continue.

So, ultimately, my view is that we’re going to have to look into all of this, but for now we just need to do what President Biden has said needs to be done, which is, for goodness’ sakes, lift these restrictions that are in place that are creating this humanitarian disaster in Gaza. We just learned yesterday that the highest number of people facing catastrophic hunger at any time, at least in recent history, are in Gaza today.

AMY GOODMAN: In February, the Senate passed a bill that includes $14 billion for Israel’s assault on Gaza, along with $60 billion for Ukraine, $8 billion for Indo-Pacific allies like Taiwan. The bill also strips U.S. funding for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. You have been very critical of that, yet you voted for the bill. Why?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, in my view, Amy, we desperately need to get the Ukrainian people the weapons that they need to rebuff Putin’s assault. And this was the only way forward to accomplishing that. That bill also included $9 billion in humanitarian assistance for people around the world, including $1.4 billion for humanitarian assistance to help those suffering in Gaza.

The UNRWA provision is incredibly problematical. But in that bill, which was a supplemental one-time bill, it would not have disrupted the annual U.S. appropriations for UNRWA, which are actually being discussed and debated as we speak with respect to the foreign operations bill for this month.

So, in my view, that bill, the supplemental bill, was necessary in order to make sure that we got weapons to help the folks in Ukraine repel Putin’s brutal assault, and we could revisit, as we are now, the UNRWA issue. Now, I am very worried, as we speak, that Republicans have insisted that in the current appropriations bill, that we no longer fund UNRWA. This would be a huge mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to — well, you have independent Senator Bernie Sanders opposing the bill, joined by two other Democratic senators who broke ranks with the party: Jeff Merkley, who went with you to the Rafah border crossing, and also the other Vermont senator, Peter Welch. This is Welch on the floor of the Senate.

SEN. PETER WELCH: I voted against the supplemental for one key reason: I cannot, in good conscience, support sending billions of additional taxpayer dollars for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s military campaign in Gaza. It’s a campaign that has killed and wounded a shocking number of civilians. It’s created a massive humanitarian crisis with no end in sight. It’s inflamed tensions in the Middle East, eroding support among Arab states that had been aligned with Israel. And, of course, it has severely compromised any remaining hope — almost all remaining hope — for the two-state solution, that we all know is ultimately essential for peace in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Chris Van Hollen, do you disagree with your fellow colleague? You have been so outspoken on this issue, as well, though took a different stance on voting for the bill.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: I don’t agree — I don’t disagree with what Peter said about the situation. But, as I said, if the Senate had not passed this piece of legislation, Ukraine would fall to Putin. So, you know, these are difficult choices that we made. I think that allowing Ukraine to fall to Vladimir Putin would be a historic mistake.

So, what I’ve done, Amy, is focus on making sure that we try to hold up — excuse me — hold up the arms transfers at the time they are noticed by the Biden administration, until the Netanyahu government meets requirements with respect to allowing humanitarian assistance in and other criteria, which is why a group of us, including Peter and others, wrote to President Biden just a little while ago, saying, “Mr. President, please enforce current law, which is the Humanitarian Aid Corridors Act, which says that if a country is essentially preventing or restricting humanitarian assistance from getting in, then you have to, Mr. President, not allow offensive weapons to be provided, as long as that situation continues.” So, there are other mechanisms we have that we should be using right now to address that situation.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if you can respond to Donald Trump, the former president, who was speaking on Sebastian Gorka’s podcast and also put out a statement. He’s facing widespread criticism. This is part of what he said.

DONALD TRUMP: When you see those Palestinian marches, even I, I’m amazed at how many people are in those marches. And guys like Schumer see that, and, to him, it’s votes. I think it’s votes more than anything else, because he was always pro-Israel. He’s very anti-Israel now. Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion, they hate everything about Israel, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: He called Democrats antisemitic. Also, his son-in-law, former adviser Jared Kushner, I want to turn to what Jared Kushner just said. Jared Kushner is talking about weighing in on Israel’s war on Gaza, saying Israel should move Palestinians out of Rafah, which he said contains valuable waterfront property. Your responses to what many are saying is the front-runner in the presidential race right now, Donald Trump, and his son-in-law, who was one of his top advisers?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, Amy, this is — here we go — Donald Trump again. Donald Trump thinks you cannot be pro-American without being pro-Donald Trump. He equates the two. In his mind, it’s heresy if you don’t believe and say you want Donald Trump leading our country. In the same way, you know, he thinks if you don’t support all the policies of Netanyahu and Smotrich and Ben-Gvir sometime, you’re opposed to Israel.

The reality, as we all know, is you can be very pro-American without supporting Trump policies. In fact, I would argue that it’s a duty of ours as Americans to make sure that we defeat Trump’s heinous policies here at home. Similarly, you can be pro-Israel and the people of Israel and understand the trauma after the atrocious October 7th attacks, without supporting the policies of the Netanyahu government —

AMY GOODMAN: And yet — 

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: — of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich and this extreme right.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, Senator, many people are extremely frustrated, Democrats and progressives, with President Biden. You have expressed criticism. I mean, the fact that the Biden administration has approved, really secretly, just keeping it right under the threshold, over a hundred U.S. weapons sales to Netanyahu, to Israel, to carry out these attacks on Gaza that have killed at this point near 32,000 people, and have engaged in food drops from the air and building a pier, because Israel is using those very bombs to attack the people of Gaza, and that gets in the way of food trucks. Are you equally critical of President Biden and what he’s doing, and what your final words would be for him, as, increasingly, young people, people of color, Arab American population and many Jews are utterly frustrated with and say they won’t vote for the Democratic candidate for president, President Biden?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, Amy, you’re right. I’ve expressed my strong frustration with the Biden administration for, essentially, not backing up the president’s demands and insistence that the Netanyahu government change course with actions — for example, implementing the Humanitarian Aid Corridors Act or, right now, in the coming days, making sure they enforce the provisions of National Security Memorandum No. 20 with respect to the responsibilities of the Netanyahu government to allow aid into Gaza.

So, I do believe that the Biden administration needs to do a lot more. I have said that when you insist on the Netanyahu government doing one thing and then don’t back it up, it does weaken our credibility, and it essentially sends a message to others around the world that you can do what Netanyahu is doing, which is, you know, ignore American requests without any consequence at all. So, I have expressed that frustration.

I’m continuing to push the Biden administration to do more. And I really hope that the Biden administration will change course. Again, I hope, in the sense that I hope they won’t get sucked into a major invasion in Rafah. And I think that they need to make sure that in the coming days — and Sunday is the real deadline — that they will enforce the provisions of National Security Memorandum 20, because, in my view, there’s no way to determine with a straight face that right now the Netanyahu government is facilitating, and not arbitrarily restricting, directly or indirectly, humanitarian aid into Gaza. And we can see it with our own eyes. We can hear it from the people who are on the ground. So, it’s really important that the Biden administration enforce those provisions, or, in my view, their credibility will be — will be even more undermined.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Chris Van Hollen, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Democratic senator from Maryland. Thank you.

When we come back, investigative journalist Shane Bauer on his journey to the occupied West Bank, where he met with Israeli settlers who were recently sanctioned by the Biden administration for violence against Palestinians. Back in 20 seconds.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Biden’s Sanctions Against Israeli Settlers Ignores State’s Role in West Bank Violence: Shane Bauer

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation