Politics / February 13, 2024

“I Will Be Damned if I’m Going to Give Another Nickel to the Netanyahu Government”

Bernie Sanders and two Senate colleagues defined a new standard for foreign aid packages: No more complicity with Israel’s assault on Gaza.

John Nichols
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is seen in the U.S. Capitol after the senate voted against advancing a border security deal on Wednesday, February 7, 2024.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is seen in the US Capitol on Wednesday, February 7, 2024.

(Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Shortly before dawn on Tuesday, the US Senate approved a $95 billion “emergency” international military spending bill, which included $14 billion in new military assistance for the Israeli government as it continues its massive assault on the civilian population of Gaza. The package, which also includes $60 billion in new funding for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, is likely to stall in the House, where Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has indicated that he will block action on the measure because it does not address border issues.

Most Senate Democrats supported the measure, which passed by a 70-29 vote, while the Republican vote was split. The party establishment wing associated with minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voted in favor, as acolytes of former president Donald Trump and libertarian-leaning senators tried to filibuster the measure.

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But amid all the partisan positioning and ideological hand-wringing, three senators—Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)—voted “no.” They did not do so because they were trying to demonize immigrants or embarrass Joe Biden as their Republican colleagues were, but because they refused to continue providing no-strings-attached funding to the Israeli attack on Gaza, where the death toll has surpassed 28,000, with close to 68,000 wounded. Every other Democrat and Democrat-aligned independent in the chamber voted yes.

Rejecting the usual Senate approach of compromising principles in order to pass omnibus spending measures, Sanders has said, “I will be damned if I’m going to give another nickel to the Netanyahu government in order to continue this war against the Palestinian people.”

In a stark, and unrelenting, address to his colleagues as the debate on the measure unfolded late last week, the 2016 and 2020 presidential candidate recounted the horror that has unfolded since October 7 of last year, when Hamas attacked Israeli kibbutzim and a music festival, killing roughly 1,200 Israelis. “As I have said many times, Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas’s terrorism, but it does not have the right to obliterate an entire people,” said the senator. But, he added, he could not accept the devastation that has resulted from Israel’s relentless assault on Palestinian men, women and children living in Gaza. In addition to the death toll, he said, “1.7 million people have been driven from their homes and, unbelievably, some 70 percent of the housing units in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed. This is an unheard-of level of destruction. Nearly 80 percent of the population has been displaced, and they have no idea of where to go, or whether or not they will ever return to their homes. Many of these men, women, and children have been displaced multiple times.

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“Mr. President, most of the infrastructure has been destroyed. Very few water wells or bakeries are still functioning. The electricity has been out since the beginning of the war. Sewage is running in the streets. Cell phone service is spotty or nonexistent. Most of the healthcare facilities in Gaza are not operational. Many facilities have been damaged in air strikes, and numerous healthcare workers have been killed. The facilities that are operational lack the basic medical supplies needed to save lives and treat their patients.

“And, Mr. President, as horrible as all of this is, let me tell you what is even worse. As a result of Israeli bombing and restrictions on aid entering Gaza, only a tiny fraction of the food, water, medicine, and fuel that is needed can get into Gaza. Even then, very little of that aid can reach beyond the immediate area around the Rafah crossing from Egypt. And let’s be clear about what this means. It means that today, hundreds of thousands of children are starving and lack clean drinking water. The UN says the entire population is at imminent risk of famine, and 378,000 people are starving right now. According to the UN, one in 10 children under the age of 5 in Gaza is now acutely malnourished. And when malnutrition affects young children, it often means permanent physical and cognitive damage that will impact the rest of their lives. Mr. President, if nothing charges, we will soon have hundreds of thousands of children literally starving to death before our very eyes.”

Describing the threat to hundreds of thousands of refugees of Palestinians in and around the Gaza city of Rafah, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed to launch a massive ground assault as part of his “total victory” strategy, Sanders concluded, “I cannot find words to describe how horrific this situation could become.”

But he could find a word to respond to that threat: No.

“Unbelievably, unbelievably, despite all of this, the US Congress is preparing to send another $14 billion to Netanyahu’s right-wing government—$14 billion more. And ten billion of this money is totally unrestricted and will allow Netanyahu to buy more of the bombs he has literally used to flatten Gaza and kill tens of thousands and thousands of children,” said Sanders. “Does the United States Congress really want to provide more military aid to Netanyahu so that he can annihilate thousands and thousands more men, women, and children?”

Nearly all of his Democratic colleagues—even several who echoed the mild complaints from President Biden and his aides regarding Israel’s “over-the-top” attack on Gaza’s civilian population—signaled that, yes, they were willing to provide more military aid to Netanyahu. Some made excuses, arguing that the Ukraine money had to be freed up. Others backed the whole package without apology.

But Sanders, Welch, and Merkley drew a line in the sand. They would make no more excuses, they would accept no more compromises.

“On the one hand, I strongly support aid to Ukraine. We need to sustain the supply of ammunition and weapons the Ukrainians need to stop the Russians. We must find a way to get this done,” said Merkley.

“On the other hand, I strongly oppose sending more offensive military aid to Israel at a time when they are using American weapons in what President Biden has called an ‘indiscriminate’ campaign of bombing. I supported Israel going after Hamas following the horrific attack on October 7th. But the indiscriminate bombing and shelling that have killed 28,000 Palestinians and more than 18,000 women and children is unacceptable. Hamas is Israel’s enemy. Palestinian civilians are not the enemy.”

More often than not, senators bow to the bad trade-off. But not Merkley.

“The campaign conducted by the Netanyahu government is at odds with our American values and American law, which requires recipients of American assistance to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid,” he explained. “While I have supported military aid to Israel in the past, and continue to support aid for defensive systems like Iron Dome and David’s Sling, I cannot vote to send more bombs and shells to Israel when they are using them in an indiscriminate manner against Palestinian civilians. So tonight, I am voting against the bill.”

Welch, who filed an unsuccessful amendment to the military-funding measure that would have “[prohibited] taxpayer dollars from being used to buy more bombs for use in Gaza,” said, “Netanyahu’s aggressive military campaign has already caused untold damage. It must stop.”

That is the bottom line, the reality that cannot be talked around, or explained away. Setting the standard that every member of the House and Senate should apply, Sanders said, “Netanyahu is starving hundreds of thousands of children. We cannot be complicit in this atrocity.”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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