PREPARED REMARKS: Sanders on Ending Unfettered Military Aid to Israel and Restoring UNRWA Funding

WASHINGTON, April 23 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today spoke on the floor of the U.S Senate regarding his strong opposition to the provision of $8.9 billion in unfettered offensive military aid to the Israeli extremist government, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, to continue his unprecedented assault on the Palestinian people.

Sanders’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below and can be watched live here:

M. President,

The Senate will soon vote on a $95 billion supplemental spending package.  $95 billion. That’s a lot of money – especially at a time when many Americans are unable to afford their rent or pay their mortgages, pay their bills, afford healthcare, are struggling with student debt or many other needs. $95 billion. That’s a lot of money.

All told, this package includes tens of billions in additional military spending and major policy changes, many of which are controversial. Many of which are disagreed with by the American people. Yet, unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate will not have the opportunity to hold separate votes on the various components of this bill.

I have heard from many of my Democratic colleagues – and I agree – who talk about the dysfunctionality taking place in the House of Representatives. In fact, I don’t know if we’re quite sure who the Speaker of the House will be in a couple of weeks, or whether the extreme, extreme right-wing is going to get rid of Mr. Johnson.

But what we can say about the House is that they at least gave their members the opportunity to vote Yes or No on funding for Ukraine, Yes or No on aid to Israel, Yes or No on TikTok, Yes or No on aid to Asian countries. That is more than can be said for the U.S. Senate right now. And I remind my colleagues that this is supposedly the “greatest deliberative body in the world.” Except we don’t have many deliberations around here. We’ve got one bill, up or down.

M. President, we need to have a serious debate on  these issues. I think the American people want us to have a serious debate on these issues.  And that is why I am trying my best to secure amendment votes which, in my view, will significantly improve this bill.

As it happens, I strongly support the humanitarian aid included in this bill, which will save many thousands of lives in Gaza, Sudan, Ukraine, and many other places. I strongly support it. I strongly support getting Ukraine the military aid it needs to defend itself against Putin’s imperialist war. I support the Iron Dome to protect Israeli civilians from missile attacks.

But let me be very clear: I strongly support ending the provision which will give $8.9 billion in unfettered offensive military aid to the extremist Israeli government – a government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is continuing his unprecedented assault against the Palestinian people.

I also strongly oppose language in this legislation that would prohibit funding for UNRWA, the UN organization that is the backbone of the humanitarian relief operation in Gaza and the only organization that experts say has the capability to provide the humanitarian aid that is desperately needed there.

And I have filed two amendments to address these issues. These amendments would not touch funding for the Iron Dome and other purely defensive systems to protect Israel against incoming missiles.

M. President, as we all know, Hamas – a terrorist organization – began this war with a horrific attack on Israel that killed 1,200 innocent men, women, and children and took more than 230 captives, some of whom remain today in captivity.

As I have said many times, Israel has and had the absolute right to defend themselves against this terrorist attack. But Israel did not and does not have the right to go to war against the entire Palestinian people, which is exactly what it is doing.

M. President, regarding offensive military aid to Israel, what we will be voting on is pretty simple.

First: has Netanyahu and his government violated U.S. and international law in Gaza – which, if he has, should automatically result in the cessation of all U.S. military aid to Israel? That is a pretty simple question.

Second, and even more importantly: as U.S. taxpayers, do we want to be complicit in Netanyahu’s unprecedented and savage military campaign against the Palestinian people? Do we want to continue providing the weapons and the military aid that is causing this massive destruction? Do we want that war in Gaza to be not only Israel’s war, but America’s war?

On the first question, the legal issue, the answer is clear: Netanyahu and his extremist government are clearly in violation of U.S. and international law and, because of that, should no longer receive U.S. military aid.

International law requires that warring parties facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need. That’s international law. Israel has clearly not done that. Only in the last several weeks, after pressure from President Biden, has aid access begun to improve somewhat, though it is still grossly insufficient given the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe.

Maybe more importantly, U.S. law on this subject is extremely clear.  There is no ambiguity. The Foreign Assistance Act says that no U.S. security assistance may be provided to any country that “prohibits or otherwise restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance.” That is the law.

Israel is clearly in violation of this law.  For six months, it has severely limited the amount of humanitarian aid entering Gaza. The result has been a catastrophic humanitarian disaster with hundreds of thousands of children facing malnutrition and starvation.

Israel’s violation of this law is not in debate. It is a reality repeatedly confirmed, every day, by numerous humanitarian organizations. Israeli leaders themselves admit it.

M. President at the start of this war, the Israeli defense minister declared a total siege on Gaza, saying, this is the Israeli Defense Minister, “we are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.  There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel. Everything is closed.” And they kept their word on that.

In January, Netanyahu himself said that Israel is only allowing in the absolute minimum amount of aid.

For months, thousands of trucks carrying life-saving supplies have sat just miles away from starving children – trucks with food miles away from children who are starving.  And Israel has kept these trucks from reaching people in desperate need.

Israel’s blockade pushed the United States to extreme measures, including air-dropping supplies and the construction of an emergency pier, in order to get food to starving people. The President and the United States did the right thing – children are starving, and we are trying to air drop aid and build a pier.  In other words, we’re now in the absurd situation where Israel is using U.S. military assistance to block the delivery of U.S. humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

If that is not crazy, I do not know what is. But it is also a clear violation of U.S. law.

Given this reality, we shouldn’t today even be having this debate. It’s illegal to continue current military aid to Israel, let alone send another $9 billion with no strings attached.

M. President, let me take a moment to describe what is happening in Gaza right now, to further explain why these amendments are absolutely necessary and why we must end U.S. complicity in Netanyahu’s war in Gaza.

M. President, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and 77,000 wounded since this war began – seventy percent of whom are women and children. Seventy percent of whom are women and children. That means five percent of the 2.2 million residents of Gaza have been killed or wounded in six-and-a-half months.

Five percent of the entire population in six-and-a-half months have been killed or wounded. That is a staggering, rather unbelievable number.

19,000 children in Gaza are now orphans. 19,000 children are orphans having lost their parents in this war. And I might add, for the children of Gaza the psychic damage that has been done to them will never cease in their lives. They have witnessed – little kids, Gaza is a young community a lot of children – they have witnessed unbelievable carnage, destruction of houses. They have experienced hunger, thirst. They have been thrown out of their homes. What is being done to the children – many hundreds of thousands of children –is unforgivable.

And the killing has not stopped. Over the weekend, 139 Palestinians were killed and 251 injured. Of these, 29 were killed in and around Rafah, including 20 children and six women, one of whom was pregnant.

M. President, roughly 1.7 million people – over 75 percent of the population – have been driven from their homes in Gaza.  Satellite data shows that 62 percent of homes in Gaza have been either damaged or destroyed, including 221,000 housing units that have been completely destroyed. 221,000 housing units completely destroyed. That’s more than one million people made homeless by Israeli bombing.

M. President, it’s not only housing. It is Gaza’s entire civilian infrastructure that has been devastated. In Gaza today there is no electricity, apart from generators or solar power, and most roads are badly damaged. More than half of the water and sanitation systems are out of commission. Clean drinking water is severely limited, and sewage is running through the streets, spreading disease.

M. President, Israel has not only destroyed the housing stock in Gaza, not only destroyed the infrastructure, they have systematically destroyed the health care system in Gaza.  26 out of 37 hospitals are completely out of service in a country that now has tens and tens of thousands of people who are now sick and wounded.  Eleven hospitals are partially functioning, but they are overwhelmed by many, many people who are sick and injured. And they are all short on medical supplies.  Doctors have had to perform countless surgeries without anesthesia or antibiotics.  Only three hospitals are now providing maternal care in Gaza, where 180 women are giving birth every day. Overall, 84 percent of health facilities have been damaged or destroyed in Gaza, and more than 400 health care workers have been killed.

But it is not only housing that has been destroyed, not only the infrastructure, not only the health care system. M. President, the education system has collapsed, with 56 schools destroyed and 219 damaged. The last of Gaza’s universities was demolished in January.  Some 625,000 students now have no access to education. 

M. President, I really do not understand what the military utility of destroying a university is.

M. President, above and beyond the destruction of homes; the destruction of the infrastructure; the destruction of the health care system; the destruction of schools, universities, and the educational system; unbelievably, there is something even worse now taking place in Gaza: and that is that more than one million Palestinians, including hundreds of thousands of children, face starvation. People in Gaza are foraging for leaves, they are eating animal feed, or surviving off the occasional aid package. At least 28 children have already died of malnutrition and dehydration. And the real number is likely much higher, but without sustained humanitarian access throughout Gaza, it’s impossible to know. Recently, USAID Administrator Samantha Power said that famine was already present in northern Gaza.

Without food, clean water, sanitation, or sufficient healthcare, hundreds of thousands of people are at severe risk from dehydration, infection, and easily preventable diseases.

M. President, I keep hearing discussion from the pundits and the experts about the “day after in Gaza,” when the war is over – but what kind of day after can there be amidst this incredible destruction? Gaza today can barely sustain human life.

M. President, Hamas started this war. And that is true. But this war stopped being about defending Israel a long time ago.  What is going on now is the destruction of the very fabric of Palestinian life.

It is impossible to look at these facts and not conclude that the Israeli government’s policy has been, quite deliberately, to make Gaza uninhabitable for Palestinians.

And, clearly, there are powerful voices in Israel’s extreme, right-wing government who have been quite open about their desire to drive the Palestinian people out of both Gaza and the West Bank.

This is not the Israel of Golda Meir. Netanyahu’s government is beholden to outright racists and religious fanatics who believe they have exclusive right to dominate the land.

M. President, that is why we must end our complicity in this terrible war. That is why we should support the amendment I am offering to end unfettered military aid to the Netanyahu’s war machine.

Let’s be clear: cutting military aid to Netanyahu’s government is not just my view.  It’s what American people believe and are demanding.

The American people, in fact, are fed up with Netanyahu and his war.

They do not want to see their taxpayer dollars support the slaughter of innocent civilians and the starvation of children. A recent Gallup poll showed that just 36% of Americans approve of Israel’s military action, with 55% disapproving. A Quinnipiac poll showed that U.S. voters oppose sending more military aid to Israel by 52% to 39. An earlier YouGov poll also showed that 52% of Americans said that the United States should stop sending weapons to Israel until it stops its attacks in Gaza.

Maybe, and here’s a very radical idea, maybe it’s time for Congress to listen to the American people. And I would urge strong support for my amendment.

M. President, my second amendment would remove the ban on funding for UNRWA, a UN organization with 30,000 employees that is delivering essential humanitarian aid in Gaza and supporting basic services in other neighboring countries, including Jordan.  Millions of people rely on those services.

Israel has said that 12 UNRWA employees were involved in the October 7th terrorist attack.

These are serious charges – obviously any involvement with Hamas by UNRWA employees is unacceptable. That is why every year UNRWA provides Israel with a list of its staff and goes to great lengths to cooperate with Israeli authorities.  UNRWA learned about Israel’s accusations from the media, and immediately fired the accused employees, while the UN launched an investigation.

Thus far, Israel has refused to cooperate with the UN investigation. I should add, importantly, that most donors have restored funding to UNRWA and are satisfied by the agency’s protocols to ensure independence from Hamas.

The U.S. National Intelligence Council, meanwhile, said that Israel’s claims were plausible but could not be confirmed, and noted that Israel has tried to undermine UNRWA for years. In the last six months, Israel has harassed UNRWA employees, blocked shipments of supplies including medicines, frozen its bank accounts, and killed 181 UN staff.

M. President, UNRWA plays a critical role both in Gaza and across the region.  Whatever the investigation shows in the end, it is my view that you don’t deny humanitarian aid to millions of people because of the alleged actions of twelve UNRWA employees out of a workforce of 30,000.

And by the way, Mr. President, when we talk about investigations, maybe, just maybe, we should not just be talking about UNRWA. Maybe we should also investigate what’s going on in the West Bank. Last weekend, after an Israeli teenager was killed, large groups of armed Israeli settlers, vigilantes, rampaged through seventeen villages, shooting dozens of people and burning homes.  Israeli soldiers watched the attacks unfold, doing nothing to stop them.  No arrests have been announced. Maybe we need an investigation there as well.

This past weekend, the Israeli military killed 14 more Palestinians in the West Bank. An ambulance driver was shot and killed as he tried to recover people wounded in another violent attack by Israeli settlers.

Since October 7th, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed more than 470 Palestinians in the West Bank, including more than 100 children.

But for some reason, I don’t know why, I just don’t hear my colleagues calling for an investigation of that.

M. President, we are in a critical moment. Not just in terms of what is happening in Gaza, but in many ways what is happening right here in America and what is happening here in the U.S. Senate. Given the fact that a majority of the American people now want to stop funding for Netanyahu’s war machine, I find it incomprehensible that we are not going to be able to vote on that issue. I find it outrageous that, at a time when Netanyahu’s government has clearly broken the law, members of this Congress, members of the Senate are not going to be able to vote as to whether or not they want to continue providing billions more of unfettered military aid to Netanyahu’s war machine.

So, M. President, I would hope that we will have the decency to allow a little bit of democracy here in the United States Senate. I would hope that we allow the members to vote on some of these very, very important issues. And I certainly hope that we will pass these amendments.

Thank you and I yield.