Report to Congress on Israel and Hamas Conflict

June 5, 2024 9:16 AM

The following June 3, 2024, Congressional Research Service report, Israel and Hamas Conflict In Brief.

From the report

Since October 7, 2023, Israel has been at war with the Palestinian Sunni Islamist group Hamas (a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, or FTO), which led an attack that day from the Gaza Strip into Israel. More than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals (including at least 35 U.S. citizens in Israel) were killed on October 7, and Hamas and other groups also seized some 252 hostages. Iran provides regular material support to Hamas, but the Office of the Director of National Intelligence assessed in February 2024 that “Iranian leaders did not orchestrate nor had foreknowledge of” the attack. The conflict that has ensued over eight months has posed increasing challenges for U.S. policymakers. This report focuses on selected aspects of the war and issues for Congress, with other aspects and regional issues addressed in other CRS products.

Conflict, humanitarian situation, and international action. In the conflict to date, more than 36,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, according to the Hamas-controlled health ministry there. Additionally, about 1.7 million of Gaza’s some 2.1 million residents have been displaced, with most facing unsanitary, overcrowded conditions alongside acute shortages of food, water, medical care, and other essential supplies and services. Obstacles to transporting aid through crossings and Israeli checkpoints and then safely delivering it have contributed to high levels of food insecurity. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification warned in March that “famine is imminent,” amid greater casualty counts (including among aid workers) and reports of increasingly dire humanitarian conditions. In this context, U.S. demands on Israel to boost assistance deliveries and improve deconfliction have increased.

In late May, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to immediately “halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate [at the southern tip of Gaza], which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” The ICJ does not have an enforcement mechanism, and Israel has said its operations do not “risk the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population.” Also in May, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor applied for arrest warrants for alleged war crimes against Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, triggering denunciations from Biden Administration and Israeli leaders who insist that the ICC has no jurisdiction in the matter, and efforts by some Members of Congress to advance sanctions against ICC officials.

U.S.-Israel cooperation and tensions (including supplemental appropriations and oversight). The Biden Administration has provided political and material support for Israeli efforts to end Hamas rule in Gaza and secure the return of hostages. In Israel, debate is ongoing about whether and how these objectives complement or conflict with one another and can be achieved separately or together, if at all.

The Biden Administration has increased criticism of Israel in apparent connection with Israel’s prosecution of the war, questions regarding the achievability of the Israeli government’s stated objectives, and the conflict’s impact on Palestinian civilians. The Administration has pushed for a multi-phase cease-fire and hostage-prisoner exchange (working with Qatari and Egyptian mediators)—with the President backing a new proposal on May 31. The Administration has also pressed for more humanitarian aid and civilian protection. A February presidential memorandum (an executive document, not standing law) set forth oversight mechanisms for Israel’s compliance with international law as a U.S. arms recipient, and the Administration provided an initial report on Israeli compliance to Congress in May. In April, Congress appropriated the President’s requested supplemental funding for Israel ($8.7 billion in Foreign Military Financing and missile defense) and global humanitarian assistance (over $9 billion) in P.L. 118-50. The legislation also includes provisions aimed at preventing the $1 billion of humanitarian aid intended for Gaza from diversion, misuse, or destruction. In May, as Israeli forces approached Rafah and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians began evacuating, President Biden said that Israel would not get U.S. arms to support military action “into these population centers,” and the Administration paused some weapons shipments. Later in the month, the Administration said that Israeli actions to date had “not involved major military operations into the heart of dense urban areas.” On May 31, Israel acknowledged that some of its forces had advanced into central Rafah.

Post-conflict positioning. Officials from the United States, Israel, and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) have differed publicly on questions regarding 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.” His stated unwillingness to embrace a PA role in Gaza or a two-state pathway may stem in part from demands by the ultra-nationalist figures from his pre-war coalition who could trigger new Israeli elections.

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