In a recent letter to President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) called the bombing of Gaza “not just a humanitarian cataclysm, but a mass atrocity” adding that the violence “is being done with bombs and equipment produced and provided by the United States and heavily subsidized by American taxpayers. Tragically, we are complicit in this carnage.” Now, he has introduced a resolution invoking Section 502B, a rarely used provision of the Foreign Assistance Act that offers Congress a potent tool to force a high-profile Senate debate about U.S. military support for possible Israeli war crimes in Gaza and pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to hasten a ceasefire.
After over two months of horrific violence in Israel and Gaza, many in Congress have begun debating the merits of placing conditions on U.S. military aid to its longtime partner. Invoking Section 502B marks a sharp departure from the standard, bipartisan practice of greenlighting billions in unconditional aid annually to Israel, despite human rights, humanitarian, and civilian harm concerns. Israel’s conduct in its war against Hamas is upending decades of arms sales precedent and opening the door to accountability.
The Sanders resolution offers a pathway to consider the role U.S. weapons are playing in devastating harm to civilians in Gaza and debate the wisdom and consequences of continuing unconditional arms transfers. His resolution requests a report from the State Department within 30 days of passage, on “all available credible information concerning alleged violations of human rights by the government of Israel” in Gaza and the West Bank. If passed, the 502B resolution could be used as a first step to condition, restrict, or entirely halt military assistance to Israel.
Forcing a Debate with an Underused Human Rights Oversight Tool
In response to Hamas’ horrific Oct. 7 attacks, Israel has waged a military campaign that has killed nearly 20,000 people in Gaza, among them thousands of children, and injured another 50,000 people. Several prominent human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented likely violations of international humanitarian law in Gaza by Israeli forces. But as the Israeli offensive devastates communities across Gaza, the United States continues to provide a steady stream of bombs, missiles, drones, artillery shells, and ammunition – all apparently without conditions. Amnesty International investigators have already shown that Israeli forces killed dozens of civilians in two strikes using weapons made in the United States. But the State Department has admitted time and again that it is not assessing whether Israel is complying with international law in its campaign.
The Section 502B Process
In light of catastrophic harm to civilians, a small but growing number of senators, including Senators Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), have scrutinized U.S. military assistance to Israel that enables devastating harm to civilians. Sanders has now invoked Section 502B in his resolution, following up on a commitment to force a vote on U.S. arms transfers to Israel.
Section 502B established the State Department’s country reports on human rights practices and includes a rarely enforced prohibition on security assistance to any country where the government engages in a “consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” (For a further discussion of Section 502B, its use, and its history, see author John Ramming Chappell’s previous Just Security article.) But the law’s promise for forcing a debate on arms transfers to Israel lies in its obscure process, known in legal terms as Section 502B(c), to require a report on human rights in a target country and then restrict security assistance to that country.
Using that process, Congress, either through the letter of a foreign affairs committee chair or the resolution of a single chamber, requests a mandatory human rights report from the State Department on a specified country. A vote on a resolution requesting a report is privileged in the Senate, meaning that a single motivated senator can force a vote on the measure ten days after introduction. If the State Department does not provide a report within 30 days of the request, no security assistance – including arms transfers – can be delivered until Congress receives the report.
Upon receiving the report, Congress has the option to enact a joint resolution of disapproval, privileged in the Senate, restricting security assistance to the country that was the subject of the report. The language of Section 502B indicates that such a resolution could narrowly target specific forms of assistance or restrict aid more broadly depending on lawmakers’ preferences.
The Sanders Resolution
While voters support conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on human rights compliance, those views have only begun to appear in the Senate. There is an urgent need for a meaningful debate on U.S. support for Israel’s destructive military offensive in Gaza. Sanders’ Section 502B resolution offers a powerful vehicle for initiating this public discussion through expedited procedures.
The resolution draws attention to the staggering human toll of both Hamas’ attacks in Israel and Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, and to the role of U.S. weapons and other assistance in Israel’s campaign. If passed, the resolution would require the State Department to include in its report all available information about both “the denial of the right to life” (which Section 502B defines as “a gross violation of human rights”) caused by both “indiscriminate or disproportionate operations” and “blanket denial of basic humanitarian needs.”
The resolution also requires certifications regarding implementation of the Leahy Law – which prohibits U.S. assistance to units of security forces where there is credible information they have committed a gross violation of human rights – with respect to Israel. No Israeli unit has ever been restricted from receiving U.S. assistance under the Leahy Law. The resolution further calls for a complete list of “weapons and munitions provided to Israel since October 7.” Analysts and journalists have drawn attention to a lack of transparency in U.S. arms transfers to Israel since Oct. 7. The bill also calls for “a detailed assessment of the compliance of the Government of Israel” with international law in its operations. U.S. government officials have repeated time and again that they are not monitoring Israeli compliance despite a commitment in the Conventional Arms Transfer policy – the Biden administration’s 2023 policy to guide decisions about weapons exports – to monitor compliance with international law for recipients of U.S. weapons.
Section 502B is not the only tool at Congress’ disposal when it comes to arms sales accountability. The Arms Export Control Act (AECA) also creates a process to force a floor debate to stop weapons sales through expedited joint resolutions of disapproval (JRDs). But there are serious flaws to this vehicle that make Section 502B a better tool. Congress typically has 30 days to pass through both chambers a disapproval resolution after receiving notification about the sale from the State Department. For Israel, the window is only 15 days, making it even more difficult. Many sales that fall below the multi-million dollar reporting threshold are not formally notified to Congress at all, and the Biden administration recently used an emergency provision to bypass congressional review of a major sale of tank ammunition to Israel.
Even a successful AECA disapproval resolution could only block a specific sale, while resolutions under Section 502B can address all or part of a broader security relationship. The AECA also requires overwhelming unity from Congress, two-thirds votes in the Senate and House, to defeat a likely Presidential veto. In contrast, the initial 502B vote to request the State Department report only requires a simple majority and Congress can control both the timing and the scope of both the reporting request and JRDs to limit U.S. assistance.
President Biden has reportedly urged changes in Israel’s conduct of hostilities, but those exhortations amount to little if the United States is not willing to use the billions of dollars that it provides to Israel annually as leverage. Both Congress and the Biden administration could use a Section 502B resolution as leverage in negotiations with Israel to gain concessions on civilian protection, humanitarian access, and deescalation. Such leverage could be beneficial even without forcing an immediate vote. Pointing to congressional action will bolster the case they say they have been making with Israeli officials that human rights and international law must be prioritized.
Congress stands at a crossroads, tasked with reflecting the desires of a growing majority around the country seeking to halt the overwhelming humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Amidst the array of legislative and procedural options to restrict or condition military assistance to Israel, few carry the efficiency, potency, and moral imperative of Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act. The world watches, waiting for decisive action from Washington. The time is now for Congress to curb U.S. complicity in the relentless tide of human suffering unfolding before our eyes.