Democratic senators call on Biden to press Israel to allow more Gaza aid

The senators made an "urgent call" for "sustained humanitarian aid in Gaza."

November 21, 2023, 12:02 PM

More than a dozen Democratic senators are calling on President Joe Biden to do more to get Israel to protect innocent civilians in Gaza and to press for more humanitarian aid into the enclave -- the latest sign that pressure is mounting on the administration to exert influence to curb the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

One, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, is joining progressive Democrats in calling for a cease-fire.

In a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday, 13 senators made an "urgent call for humanitarian assistance for Palestinian civilians in Gaza" following Hamas' surprise terror attacks on Israel on Oct. 7. More than 1,200 people were killed in Israel during the initial terror attack, according to Israeli officials. More than 13,000 people have been killed in retaliatory operations in Gaza since, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

PHOTO: Palestinians walk at the site of Israeli strikes on houses, in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip Nov, 21, 2023.
Palestinians walk at the site of Israeli strikes on houses, in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip Nov, 21, 2023.
Abed Sabah/Reuters

"We encourage you to work with international partners to achieve expeditious implementation of a plan for sustained humanitarian aid in Gaza," the Democratic senators wrote in the letter. "We hope you'll join us in encouraging our ally Israel to take immediate steps to help provide critical humanitarian aid to the innocent civilians in Gaza, including re-opening the Kerem Shalom border crossing [in southern Gaza] to allow life-saving water, food, and fuel to reach vulnerable civilians."

The Democrats who signed the letter include Sens. Merkely, Tammy Baldwin, Tim Kaine, Chris Van Hollen, Dick Durbin, Brian Schatz, Michael Bennet, Martin Heinrich, Peter Welch, Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Duckworth, Ed Markey and Jeanne Shaheen.

The White House hasn't responded to ABC News' request for comment on the letter.

Earlier this month, the White House said Israel agreed to put in place four-hour daily humanitarian pauses on its attack on Hamas in northern Gaza. Israel's bombing campaign and total siege of the neighboring Gaza Strip has complicated efforts to deliver aid to the area.

At the White House press briefing Monday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the daily humanitarian pauses, at U.S. urging, are "happening on a regular basis" and have extended up to seven hours a day in some cases.

Kirby said the administration is hopeful these humanitarian pauses can help with the safe release of the hundreds of hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework Leaders event at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in San Francisco, Nov. 16, 2023.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework Leaders event at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in San Francisco, Nov. 16, 2023.
Brittany Hosea-Small/Reuters

"If you're going to secure the release of hostages -- and we certainly hope we're going to be able to do that soon -- you got to make sure they can get from where they are to safety and do that as safely as possible, which means you're going to have to have at least a temporary localized stop in the fighting to allow them to move," Kirby said at the White House press briefing.

The senators sent the letter the same day that Biden said he believed a deal is near to free some of the more than 200 hostages. The administration said that 10 Americans unaccounted for are believed to be among the hostages.

Biden said Tuesday that "we're now very close" on a deal to release the hostages being held by Hamas, but the president did not discuss more details.

Also in the letter, the Democratic senators shared their concern for the long-term effects of the war.

"We are concerned that increased and prolonged suffering in Gaza is not only intolerable for Palestinian civilians there but will also negatively impact the security of Israeli civilians by exacerbating existing tensions and eroding regional alliances," the senators wrote.

They called on the president to develop a plan to end Hamas' influence in Gaza and help build "hope for the future." The U.S. has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization.

"We worry the current trajectory of the conflict moves us further away from our shared goals of ending Hamas's threat and removing them from power in Gaza, bringing hostages home, and achieving sustainable peace in the region through a two-state solution," the senators wrote. "Mr. President, it is in our national interest that you clearly articulate that vision. To these ends, we urge you to define a U.S. vision for the future of Israel and Palestine as well as the role our country will play in encouraging a peaceful resolution and rebuilding."

PHOTO: National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Nov. 20, 2023.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Nov. 20, 2023.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, Sen. Merkley posted to X that a cease-fire is needed, but it "must accomplish other essential objectives, including the release of all hostages and a massive influx of humanitarian aid."

Merkley joined Durbin, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, in his call earlier this month for a cease-fire. Durbin was the first senator to call for a cease-fire in Gaza, saying on CNN that a cease-fire should be contingent on the release of hostages.

Humanitarian groups have urged Israel to call off the evacuation of the northern part of Gaza and agree to a cease-fire, even as the country has asserted a right to defend itself against Hamas -- a right the Biden administration endorses.

The White House has favored humanitarian pauses over a cease-fire.

"We don't support a cease-fire," Kirby said at a White House press briefing last week. "We think that's going to benefit Hamas."

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