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Maryland Sen. Van Hollen says Biden could pressure Israel to let more aid through


Is the U.S. using every tool at its disposal to get food to people starving in Gaza? Our next guest says no. He is Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat from Maryland. He visited the Rafah border crossing back in January and has been raising concerns ever since that Israel is obstructing the flow of vital supplies. The senator says the Biden administration could pressure Israel to let more aid through, and they could do it by invoking a law called the Humanitarian Aid Corridor Act. Senator Van Hollen is on the line. Welcome.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Mary Louise, good to be with you.

KELLY: So I understand that there are already efforts to put this law in play. Just describe - what is this law supposed to do? How would it work?

VAN HOLLEN: This law is very straightforward. It says the United States shall not provide military assistance to any country if that country is prohibiting or otherwise restricting, directly or indirectly, the transport and delivery of U.S. assistance into an area. It's clearly triggered by the facts on the ground in Gaza, where we now have kids who have literally died of starvation and hundreds of thousands of people on the verge of starvation and 4 out of the 5 hungriest people in the world today in Gaza.

KELLY: So just to spell it out completely - if this law is invoked, as you believe it should be, to the letter, it would mean the U.S. could not be continuing to send military aid to Israel so long as Israel is blocking medicine, food supplies, etc. from going in?

VAN HOLLEN: So long as that is happening, yes, that's true with one exception, which relates to defensive weapons systems like the Iron Dome system.

KELLY: OK. So no offensive weapons. Just describe - I mentioned you were there at the border crossing back in January. Did you see evidence that Israel was restricting the flow of aid?

VAN HOLLEN: Yes. I mean, first of all, we saw miles of trucks backed up at the border crossing and the very cumbersome and arbitrary inspection process. So, for example, we visited a warehouse full of goods that had been rejected. So this included maternity kits. This included water purification systems. Allegedly, these were somehow dual-use items, but no reasonable person could conclude that. And when one of...

KELLY: Dual-use items...

VAN HOLLEN: ...The items...

KELLY: ...Forgive me, I'll just jump in and explain - dual-use meaning could also have some kind of military purpose, and Israel maintains it needs to make sure that nothing that Hamas could use for military purposes be allowed in. Go on.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, that's exactly right. So in no case was it explained why these items were rejected, so you have to speculate. A maternity kit includes this little, teeny scalpel sometimes. But when one item on a truck is sent back, like these maternity kits, the entire truck is turned around, has to go back on the line and take weeks to get through.

KELLY: So if this tool exists, why isn't the Biden administration using it?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, interesting you ask. We finally got a delegation from the State Department to come down to the Hill last week and ask them questions. And I have to say, there were no good answers. I'm as flabbergasted today as I was before we asked them to come down and brief us.

KELLY: Is there precedent for the U.S. to use this law to push an ally to change its behavior?

VAN HOLLEN: There is precedent. In fact, Bill Clinton used this law back in the day with respect to Turkey that was blocking assistance to Armenia at the time. Now, if the president determines that a country is blocking aid, but still the president determines we should be providing military assistance, the president can do that. That is what President Clinton did in the case of Turkey. But at least he went through the process of saying, yes, the law was triggered, but I'm going to exercise my waiver.

KELLY: I mean, we have heard a shift in rhetoric lately from the administration. There were comments from the vice president, Kamala Harris, recently saying, look, no excuses - Israel has to do more to increase the flow of aid into Gaza. Do you - Senator, do you hear more than rhetoric? Do you hear that there may be an increased willingness by the U.S. to push Israel?

VAN HOLLEN: The president has increased the toughness of the tone. So the question is, what point will the president and the Biden administration move from saying, we need you, Mr. Netanyahu, to do this, to actually holding him accountable?

KELLY: That is Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen from Maryland. Thanks for speaking with us.

VAN HOLLEN: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.