Report to Congress on Israel and Hamas Conflict, U.S. Policy Options

March 14, 2024 6:01 AM

The following is the March 13, 2024, Congressional Research Service report, Israel and Hamas Conflict In Brief: Overview, U.S. Policy, and Options for Congress.

From the report

On October 7, 2023, the Palestinian Sunni Islamist group Hamas (a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, or FTO) led surprise attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip. More than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals (including at least 35 U.S. citizens in Israel) were killed. Hamas and other groups also seized 253 hostages on October 7. The stunning nature, scope, and lethality of the attacks and apparent intelligence failures have become a subject of analysis for Israeli and U.S. officials. Iran reportedly provides material support to Hamas, and according to U.S. officials may be complicit in a broad sense, but President Joe Biden said in October “there is no evidence” that Iran helped plan the attack.

In response to the October 7 attacks, Israel declared war on Hamas and launched aerial bombardment and ground operations in Gaza. As of March 12, 2024, more than 31,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed. Israel and Hamas agreed to a multiday pause in fighting in late November. During the pause, 110 hostages held in Gaza and 250 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel were released. Hamas and others reportedly hold some 130 persons (with at least 30 probably dead), including about five living Americans.

The situation in Gaza, with an estimated 1.7 million Gazans displaced (out of a population of approximately 2.1 million people) constitutes a humanitarian crisis. More than 60% of the housing units in Gaza have reportedly been destroyed or damaged. Some food and other essential supplies have entered Gaza via Egypt and Israel during the conflict, but delays and other obstacles to transporting aid through crossings and Israeli checkpoints and then safely delivering it—particularly in northern Gaza—contributed to a late February U.N. assessment that one-quarter of Gaza’s people were “one step away from famine.” Amid an international outcry, assistance deliveries have increased; they remain short of U.N.-assessed needs. In early March, the United States and other countries began taking steps to provide additional humanitarian aid to Gaza via airdrops and a planned maritime corridor, while Israel opened a new land crossing directly into northern Gaza. In response to worsening food insecurity in Gaza, President Biden has ordered the U.S. military to construct a temporary port just offshore from Gaza to facilitate commercial shipments of assistance from Cyprus. The Department of Defense estimates that the port will be ready for use around 60 days from March 8.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for “total victory,” the elimination of Hamas, and the return of all hostages. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has reportedly gained control over key areas of northern Gaza, withdrawn some of its forces, and shifted somewhat toward lower-intensity warfare while continuing operations farther south in an effort to target Hamas and its top leaders. Hamas’s tunnels make urban warfare more challenging. Negotiations involving the United States, Egypt, and Qatar have sought to resolve sticking points between Israel and Hamas on a potential multi-week cease-fire and hostage-prisoner exchange deal. The Biden Administration has stated that Israel has the right to defend itself, and has resisted calls from other international actors for an indefinite cease-fire. However, U.S. leaders have urged Israel to minimize casualties and increase humanitarian assistance in Gaza. The Administration also has publicly stated concerns about Israel’s plans to eventually move its forces into Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, urging Israel not to advance on the city without a credible plan to protect the over 1 million civilians living there—most of whom earlier fled other conflict areas.

Differences between officials from the United States, Israel, and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) on post-conflict security and governance for Gaza may intensify the challenges involved. U.S. officials have expressed support for a resumption of PA administration in Gaza after the PA undertakes certain reforms, as part of efforts to move toward a two-state solution; PA and other Arab leaders insist on progress toward a Palestinian state for them to cooperate with this transition. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made statements opposing a PA return to power in Gaza, and has insisted that Israel should have full security control of “all territory west of the Jordan River,” asserting that his years-long stance has prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In an October 2023 supplemental budget request, President Biden asked Congress to appropriate more than $14 billion in Israel-related funding, and more than $9 billion in global humanitarian assistance that could partly be allocated for Gaza, Israel, and the surrounding region. Members of Congress have expressed differing views on the request and its various elements, with some debate focused on what level of oversight or conditionality (if any) to place on security assistance to Israel and humanitarian assistance to Gaza. The House and Senate have each passed bills and continue to deliberate on the way forward.

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