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Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal aera in Gaza City on October 9, 2023. (WAFA)

How Congress Fails to Hold Israel Accountable on Human Rights

The US Senate's recent vote to effectively kill a resolution proposed by Bernie Sanders fits into a long history of granting Israel impunity on human rights violations.

Words: Alexander Langlois
Pictures: Wafa Agency

On Jan. 16, the Senate voted to table a resolution from Senator Bernie Sanders that would have required the US government to assess how Israel is using US weapons in its war in the Gaza Strip. The vote marks yet another egregious failure on the part of the US Congress to both check the president’s executive power and uphold relatively basic legal statutes supportive of human rights standards and a restrained foreign policy. Indeed, amid a steady flow of human rights violations documented in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), the United States is once again failing to uphold its international and domestic legal responsibilities in glaring ways that must be forcefully condemned.

Sanders’ resolution utilizes Section 502B(c) of the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA). This subsection, utilized for the first time on Jan. 16, allows the US Congress to request information from the US Department of State (DoS) on a country’s human rights practices concerning US assistance. With this information, Congress can choose to effectively prohibit the US government from providing security assistance to partners engaging in a “consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

Leading human rights organizations like the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and political commentators like Ryan Grim have long advocated for this approach as a way to finally review how Israel uses US military assistance, particularly regarding the current war in Gaza. Per this thinking, any reasonable review of the facts would elucidate a trove of Israeli human rights violations — conducted with American-made weapons — and set the record straight for the US public at a minimum.

As Sanders indicated ahead of the vote, “Congress must have the information requested in this resolution,” highlighting that all assistance to “any country must be used in line with internationally recognized human rights.”

“This is not a radical idea,” Sanders stressed as he opened his speech on the Senate floor to introduce his resolution.

“Hard to Understand” 

Unfortunately, the resolution’s merits played second fiddle to the context’s political realities, with many senators declaring that the Sanders resolution was just that — radical. One can be excused for confusing a rare Congressional push to hold the executive branch accountable with radicalism given that it rarely happens today.

But this push was hardly a radical concept. Enforcing US law is not radical, especially when that law and Sanders’ resolution simply direct the State Department to provide any credible information it might have of potential violations of internationally recognized human rights by Israel in its military campaign in Gaza; focuses on the denial of the right to life caused by indiscriminate or disproportionate military operations and restrictions on humanitarian access; asks for information on steps the US government has taken to limit civilian harm in the war; asks the US government to certify that the Leahy Laws are being fully applied; and requests a summary of the arms provided to Israel since Oct. 7.

“This is a simple request for information,” stressed Sanders in his opening statements ahead of the vote. “Frankly, [it’s] hard for me to understand why anyone would oppose it.”

Very few senators supported the resolution, with 78 voting against and 11 voting in affirmation. Those 11 senators include Democrats Laphonza Butler of California, Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, and Sanders and Peter Welch of Vermont. Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky also voted in the affirmative.

This is a simple request for information.

– Bernie Sanders

Notably, Republican Mike Lee and Democrat Chris Murphy did not support the resolution. Both senators are significant players involved in conversations around Congressional oversight of the executive branch, particularly related to arms sales and a generally more restrained foreign policy. Both have introduced or supported War Powers resolutions similar to that of the Sanders resolution in the past, rightly focusing heavily on Saudi Arabia’s brutal bombing campaign in Yemen. One such resolution was introduced in March of 2023 — less than one year before Tuesday’s vote.

Barring the obvious flip-flopping, especially considering US public support for Sanders’ resolution and Murphy’s 2021 commentary arguing that it was “time that we start trusting the national security instincts of the American public,” the overall outcome of the vote is unsurprising.  Unfortunately, senators are voting along strict electoral lines, understanding the risks of standing up to Israel in the US Congress.

Major lobbying groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) play a significant role on the Hill, both in advocacy efforts and fundraising, in ways that can kill careers. As Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut said in December 2023, backing Israel constitutes “the path of least resistance” given the strength of the Israel lobby, which visits him at least “6-8 times a year.”

Breaking US Law

Regardless, it is shameful that the US Congress is providing Israel with exceptions yet again, often breaking US laws by simply not enforcing them. Every country is rightly scrutinized ahead of military aid deals, with a particular focus on human rights violations. The stances of most Democrats should be condemned in this regard as a strong majority of these elected officials supported measures to reign in Saudi Arabia during the Trump administration — a convenient punching bag at the time. US President Joe Biden and his team fall in this category as well.

Ultimately, Congress should push for more oversight and checks on the executive branch, especially as the latter has dramatically expanded its power in recent decades. The American people want more transparency around government actions — not less. For a functioning and representative democracy, this does not mean increased opaqueness around arms sales and military action, such as Biden’s decision to bypass a Congressional review of two large arms sales to Israel since Oct. 7 and legally dubious military strikes throughout the Middle East.

US taxpayers deserve to know if their government is using tax income to support human rights violations. No US partner is above this threshold — even and particularly Israel given how widespread apartheid accusations have become. While it is promising to see some support for Sanders’ resolution, the lack of support for a restrained foreign policy that centralizes human rights remains concerning. Hopefully, the future will hold more votes on the subject — leading senators to vote based on principles and the law over electoral considerations and personal ambitions.

Alexander Langlois

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him on X at @langloisajl or Bluesky at

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