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

April 18, 2024 7:32 AM

The following is the April 16, 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. 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. The ongoing conflict could affect and be affected by Israel-Iran conflict elsewhere (see, for example, CRS Insight IN12347, Escalation of the Israel-Iran Conflict, coordinated by Jeremy M. Sharp).

In response to the October 7 attacks, Israel declared war on Hamas and launched aerial bombardment and ground operations in Gaza. As of April 15, 2024, more than 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry. Israel publicly seeks the elimination of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities and the release of all hostages; Hamas’s tunnels have made these tasks more challenging. The Israeli military has reportedly cleared some key areas in Gaza of visible Hamas control, withdrawn tens of thousands of troops, and apparently shifted toward lower-intensity warfare. Israel has said it will conduct a ground campaign in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah to corner Hamas’s intact fighting units. Israeli leaders are reportedly debating how to balance declared national objectives regarding Hamas and hostage recovery, and also international concerns about the welfare of the over one million civilians in Rafah—most of whom earlier fled other conflict areas.

The conflict’s impact in Gaza, with an estimated 1.7 million Gazans displaced (out of a population of approximately 2.1 million people) has generated a humanitarian crisis. Some food and other essential supplies have entered Gaza via Egypt and Israel during the conflict, but significant delays and other obstacles to transporting aid through crossings and Israeli checkpoints and then safely delivering it—particularly in northern Gaza—contributed to a March warning from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification that “famine is imminent.” The United States and other countries began in March to provide additional humanitarian assistance to Gaza via airdrops and a planned maritime corridor. President Biden has ordered the U.S. military to construct a temporary port just offshore from Gaza to facilitate commercial shipments of assistance, with a goal to begin humanitarian assistance deliveries from the port by sometime in May.

The Biden Administration has provided broad political and material support for Israel’s defense and its stated goals to end Hamas’s rule in Gaza and recover hostages, but has sharpened its public criticism of Israeli actions. After an April 1 IDF drone strike killed seven relief workers in Gaza, President Biden stated that “strikes on humanitarian workers and the overall humanitarian situation are unacceptable.” He added that U.S. policy “will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action” to address “civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.” The Administration also has pressed Israel not to proceed with major military operations in Rafah without clearly planning for civilian safety and welfare. 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. In November, Israel and Hamas agreed to a multi-day pause in fighting featuring hostage-prisoner exchanges. Around 129 hostages reportedly remain in Gaza, including some Americans (with at least 34 hostages presumed dead; some reports indicate that number may be higher).

Officials from the United States, Israel, and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) have differed publicly on some proposed aspects of post-conflict security and governance for Gaza. U.S. officials have expressed support for a resumption of PA rule 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 at some point during such a transition. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that Israel have full security control of “all territory west of the Jordan River.”

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, with the Administration saying in February that it expected $1.4 billion of this funding to be provided for Gaza. Members of Congress have expressed differing views on the request and its various elements, and debate has increased in intensity over 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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