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Some Democrats are considering restrictions on military aid to Israel


President Biden's administration has faced a question for some months now. What possible leverage could it use on Israel? The Israeli government has publicly turned aside some of the president's concerns about the war in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he's made it supremely clear that Israeli troops plan a military operation in the city of Rafah, where more than a million people were supposed to find shelter from destruction elsewhere. President Biden has said that operation should not proceed without a plan to protect civilians, but what's the United States going to do about it?

Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is a friend and confidant to the president and has said the United States could restrict aid to Israel. He's on the line. Senator, welcome back.

CHRIS COONS: Thanks, Steve. Good to be with you this morning.

INSKEEP: I just want to note, as you know, this would be a big step because the United States is Israel's most important ally by far. So how would restrictions on aid work?

COONS: Well, we have existing restrictions in law that say that those to whom we give weapons and financial support are supposed to use them in accordance with international law. There have already been efforts in Congress to restrict the transfer of military weapons from the United States to Israel. And to be clear about what I've said, it aligns with what the president has said. Israel has the right, even the obligation, to defend its civilians against Hamas and to continue pursuing Hamas terrorists. But they have to balance that with their obligation to protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian aid going into Gaza.

So a delegation from Israel is now on its way to Washington to meet with our military leadership to consult on how they could possibly conduct a ground invasion into Rafah, where there are still four battalions of Hamas fighters, and allow for civilians to get out of Rafah and conduct an operation in a way that isn't unreasonably dangerous and unsafe and will result in thousands and thousands more civilian casualties. It's exceptionally...

INSKEEP: Well, given the realities, do you...

COONS: ...Difficult to do.


COONS: Almost impossible, frankly.

INSKEEP: OK. That was my question - almost impossible. It sounds like you're skeptical that the Israelis could give you some plan or give the president some plan that would protect civilians and also involve an invasion of this city.

COONS: They would have to provide for space elsewhere in Gaza where there was shelter set up for nearly a million Palestinians. So this is not an operation that can be safely done in the coming weeks. And frankly, like millions of others around the world, I continue to hope and pray for our hostage deal. The hostages being held by Hamas have been in tunnels beneath Gaza for 165 days now. And, Steve, I recently met with Rachel and Jon, the parents of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, an American Israeli citizen. Their pain as parents is palpable.

And I really had hoped that before Ramadan, there would be a deal that would lead to the release of hostages and weeks and weeks of a cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid in at scale. There's more than a million Palestinians on the verge of famine, hundreds of thousands on the verge of starvation. There are ways to get aid in, and I'm glad President Biden has taken the initiative now to begin delivering food by airdrop to the North, that the Israelis are showing a willingness to begin to open a new northern gate into the north of Gaza, where the starvation is the most acute. And I recently hosted Jose Andres to brief a dozen senators on his inspiring efforts to deliver aid by sea.

INSKEEP: Sure. Chef Jose has been in that disaster area, as well as many others. That's absolutely true.

We had Michael Oren on the program the other day, Senator, who is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. And he argued that no Israeli government could do much differently than what they're doing - for the reason you said - because the hostages are still there. Because Israel has this security threat, they - politically, no government could survive unless they are making the maximum effort in Gaza. Do you think that the Israelis do not actually have much room to maneuver, to listen to the president? Got about 30 seconds here.

COONS: Look. I think they have to be mindful of the reputation of Israel globally, here in the United States, their record going forward. They do have to continue to fight Hamas, but they have to do it in a way that reduces dramatically the civilian casualties and delivers humanitarian aid. It's tough, but that's the only path forward that I can support.

INSKEEP: Senator, thanks so much for your insights. I really appreciate it.

COONS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Chris Coons of Delaware is a Democratic member of the United States Senate. And for more coverage, as well as differing views and analysis of the conflict, you can go to Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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