Cease-fire calls in Congress grow after killings at Gaza humanitarian aid convoy

Cease-fire calls in Congress grow after killings at Gaza humanitarian aid convoy

Calls in Congress for increased humanitarian aid and a cease-fire in Gaza grew on Thursday after more than 100 people were killed near a convoy of trucks bringing in aid to civilians in Gaza City.

Rep. Greg Landsman (D-Ohio) said there should be an opening of at least two points of entry for assistance to enter Gaza, instead of the one crossing at the southern border, to increase aid to areas including northern Gaza.

“If those areas have all of the food and medicine and water and gas that folks need, you will avoid tragic, gut-wrenching events like today,” he said. “That has to be a priority.”

He added that “diplomatic leaders got to push and push and push on all sides to bring this war to an end.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he wasn’t sure if the deadly incident changed the debate but said it is “more imperative than ever” to get more aid into Gaza.

The bloody incident in which more than 100 people died in Gaza City came days after Michigan voters delivered a warning to President Biden in the form of a vote of “uncommitted” in the Democratic primary on Tuesday.

More than 101,000 people — 13.2 percent of the vote — cast ballots for “uncommitted” to send a signal repudiating Biden’s support for Israel in the war.

The two sides offered different stories on what happened Thursday, with Palestinians and Gazan officials contending that Israeli troops opened fire on people seeking humanitarian aid. Israel said many were injured or killed as a result of a chaotic rush on the convoy, and that troops only fired on people who approached troops in a threatening way.

“As these vital humanitarian supplies were making their way toward Gazans in need, thousands of Gazans descended on the trucks,” said Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson. “Some began violently pushing and even trampling other Gazans to death, looting the humanitarian supplies.”

Hagari said “no IDF strike was conducted toward the aid convoy.”

The news was described as a “massacre” by the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, which said as of Thursday evening that 112 people died and more than 700 remain injured in the frantic rush to access aid on Al-Rashid Street in Gaza City.

When asked about the incident Thursday, President Biden told reporters that his administration was still “checking that out.”

“There’s two competing versions of what happened,” Biden said. “I don’t have an answer yet.”

Biden also acknowledged the deaths could complicate negotiations to secure a new cease-fire and hostage release deal after expressing optimism earlier this week that a deal was at hand.

The U.S. is debating whether to send roughly $14 billion to Israel as part of a national security package, and some more progressive lawmakers are calling to place conditions on any assistance to the country to ensure humanitarian protections.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) grilled Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday about the death toll in Gaza, arguing there should be “consequences when another country is defying” a U.S. request to lower the death toll.

“There has to be some consequence,” he said at a hearing, where Austin testified.

Referencing the Thursday incident, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said on the Senate floor she was a friend of Israel but added that “this kind of bloodshed should be completely avoidable.”

“I come to the floor as someone who feels very strongly that Israel absolutely must change course. The collective punishment in Gaza has got to stop, and Israel must do more to protect civilian life,” she said. “We need a mutually agreed upon cease-fire and end [to] the fighting as soon as possible; we need the return of all hostages by Hamas, and we need a massive surge in humanitarian aid.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) raised doubts about the veracity of both the cause and number of civilian deaths in Thursday’s alleged attacks because the reports originated with Gaza health officials associated with Hamas. But he said the tragedy highlights the massive toll civilians have paid throughout the conflict and reinforces the need for a cease-fire agreement before Ramadan.

“Whether it’s this incident or any other incident, there are many thousands of dead civilians in Gaza,” he said.

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said the White House is in touch with Israel to learn about what happened Thursday and said the administration has pushed for Israel to protect civilian lives.

“The situation also does underscore the critical importance of ensuring that much needed humanitarian assistance can be delivered to the people of Gaza in a safe, secure, and sustained manner,” he told reporters.

The deaths Thursday added to a mounting toll in Gaza, where more than 30,000 people have died.

During a temporary cease-fire agreement in late November, more trucks entered Gaza, and the flow of humanitarian aid increased. But the situation has since deteriorated. Hagari, the Israeli spokesperson, said they are working to increase the amount of aid into Gaza, though Israel has been accused of attacking aid convoys in the past.

Israel has fought across nearly the entire Gaza strip and has set its sights on the last safe zone in the territory, the southern city of Rafah, which is hosting more than a million Palestinian civilians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel must fight Hamas in Rafah, accusing them of hiding battalions there.

Israeli officials have threatened to move into Rafah by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on March 10, though Biden has said that date could be avoided if a new hostage and cease-fire deal is reached.

Biden has grown more critical of Israel’s actions over time, saying this month that the Israeli response has been “over the top.”

But that has not been good enough for critics, who have grown alarmed over time as Israel has raided hospitals and bombed civilian infrastructure after claiming Hamas uses those structures.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street, said the alleged shooting Thursday “should never have happened. “

“The government of Israel has put young Israeli soldiers and desperate Palestinian families in impossible positions with predictably catastrophic results,” Ben-Ami said in a statement. “It underscores the need to get more aid in, ensure it doesn’t come under fire after it enters, and secure an urgent temporary ceasefire to get hostages out and grant a reprieve to the devastation.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American lawmaker in Congress, led the “uncommitted” effort against Biden in Michigan this week and has emerged as the most vocal critic in the Democratic Party of his handling of the war.

At a press conference Thursday, she said that the U.S. must push to secure the release of hostages and for a cease-fire, two important goals that she said can only be accomplished together.

“We must choose life over death,” Tlaib said.

Mike Lillis and Nick Roberts contributed to this report.

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