WASHINGTON - Seventeen Democratic U.S. senators wrote Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday urging him to immediately take steps to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The letter — first reported by Axios and led by Sens. Chris Van Hollen, Tim Kaine, Chris Murphy and Jeff Merkley — notes that there was a crisis in Gaza even before last month's fighting, and "recent hostilities have significantly aggravated the dire humanitarian emergency on the ground."
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They call on the administration to support emergency relief by "pressing all sides to allow for unfettered relief" while announcing new bilateral funding for humanitarian and development assistance, and to encourage other donor countries to do so as well.
The senators further urge Blinken to support humanitarian access, including steps to ensure the opening of the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings, as well "easing on an emergency basis, and ultimately lifting, the harsh restrictions on freedom of movement that block Gazans."
They also call on Blinken to robustly fund humanitarian efforts, including fully funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to the previous annual levels of $360 million, also asking him to support forthcoming emergency appeals.
Finally, they push Blinken to restore the U.S. diplomatic presence on the ground, including key posts such as U.S. ambassador, consul general and USAID chief of mission.
"The United States has a critical role to play in meeting urgent humanitarian needs, coordinating with our allies and the international community, and supporting and working with the parties to recognize and protect the human rights and dignity of all Israelis and Palestinians," they write. "In order for this cease-fire to be durable and avoid a renewal of the cycle of violence, it is critical that we improve the dire conditions in Gaza that only contribute to despair and further fuel extremism."
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Other senators to sign the letter include Patrick Leahy, Brian Schatz, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, Raphael Warnock, Sherrod Brown, Martin Heinrich, Jack Reed, Patty Murray, Sheldon Whitehouse, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.
The letter comes nearly two weeks after 56 House Democrats wrote a similar letter to Blinken, directly linking bolstering U.S. aid to the Palestinians with maintaining the current Gaza cease-fire.
During his flash visit to the Middle East this month following the cease-fire, Blinken announced $38 million in new assistance to support humanitarian efforts, as well as $75 million in assistance to support relief and recovery. The U.S. plans to add another $75 million in aid earmarked for economic development, on top of the $250 million in aid for the Palestinians, which was announced in March.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told his Egyptian counterpart last week that Gaza reconstruction efforts cannot begin "without resolving the issue of the return of Israeli MIAs and civilians" believed to be held by Hamas.