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In State of the Union, Biden tells Israel that humanitarian aid is not a ‘bargaining chip’

Biden’s rebuke of Israel regarding humanitarian aid was his strongest so far

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Joe Biden used his State of the Union speech to call on Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, saying that it must not be used as leverage.

“Israel must do its part. Israel must allow more aid into Gaza and ensure humanitarian workers aren’t caught in the crossfire,” Biden said Thursday night. “To the leadership of Israel I say this: Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority.”

The segment of the hour-plus speech devoted to the Israel-Hamas war came near the end, was lengthy and included statements supportive of Israel in its war with Hamas, as well as a call on Hamas to release the Israeli hostages it is holding, and a condemnation of sexual violence committed in the terror group’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel.

“Here in the chamber tonight are American families whose loved ones are still being held by Hamas,” Biden said, earning the one of the few standing ovations from lawmakers of both parties of the evening.  “I pledge to all the families that we will not rest until we bring every one of your loved ones home.”

But Biden’s rebuke of Israel regarding humanitarian aid was his strongest so far, suggesting that Prime Minister Benjamin’s government wasn’t doing enough to protect civilian lives. It was a signal of Biden’s increasing impatience with Israel as Gaza verges on starvation after months of war, and his need to placate his party’s restive left wing, which opposes his staunch support of Israel’s war effort.

Biden formally announced what his top aides had told reporters earlier in the day: a plan to build a temporary pier on the Gaza coast to deliver emergency aid to the Palestinians. He also repeated his call for a six-week ceasefire that would include

“Israel also has a fundamental responsibility, though, to protect innocent civilians in Gaza. This war has taken a greater toll on innocent civilians than all previous wars in Gaza combined,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Biden’s remarks about the plight of the Gaza Palestinians earned nods from the Squad, the small group of progressive Democrats who have been most critical of Israel and who wore Palestinian symbology, including keffiyehs and flag pins, to the State of the Union. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American, raised a paddle that said “Lasting ceasefire now.”

Dozens of lawmakers wore stickers saying “153,” the number of days Hamas has held more than 130 people hostage, around 100 of whom are presumed to be alive. Family members of hostages held in the Gaza Strip, and Israelis formerly held hostage, were in the room as guests of lawmakers of both parties, including the Congressional leadership.

In the same segment of the speech, Biden said he would work to free Evan Gershkovich, the Jewish Wall Street Journal reporter being held in Russia on trumped up charges. Gershkovich’s parents were the guests of the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mike Johnson of Louisiana.

Another Johnson guest was Talia Khan, a Jewish MIT graduate student who has advocated against antisemitic behavior and rhetoric on her campus.

Biden said Hamas was principally to blame for the war in Gaza, and said the group “could end this conflict today by releasing the hostages, laying down arms, and surrendering those responsible for Oct. 7th.”

The speech came days after both Biden and former President Donald Trump became the presumptive nominees of their parties in November’s presidential election. Throughout the speech, Biden was unrelenting in his attacks on Trump, referring to him as “my predecessor” and depicting him — and some of the Republicans in the chamber — as threats to democracy and the world order.

Alabama Sen. Katie Britt delivered the Republican rebuttal from her kitchen, where she referred to the Gaza war, and accused Biden of abandoning Israel.

“Iran’s terrorist proxies have slaughtered Israeli Jews  and American citizens,” she said, speaking in impassioned tones. “We all recall when presidents faced national security threats with strength and resolve. That seems like ancient history right now.”

This article originally appeared on JTA.org.

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