On October 7, 2023, the Palestinian Sunni Islamist group Hamas (a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, or FTO) led surprise attacks against Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, sea, and air. The assault came on a Jewish holiday, 50 years after the Egypt-Syria surprise attack on Israel that sparked the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The October 7 assault’s scope and lethality against Israel have no precedent in the 16 years Hamas has controlled Gaza, and the nature of the violence stunned Israelis. The apparent intelligence and operational failures in preventing the assault have become a subject of analysis for Israeli and U.S. officials. Iran reportedly provides material support to Hamas, and according to U.S. officials may be complicit in a broad sense, but President Joe Biden has said “there is no evidence” that Iran helped plan the attack.
In response to the October 7 attacks, Israel’s cabinet formally declared war on Hamas. Israel has initiated efforts to recover some 240-250 hostages (including some Americans) taken during the Hamas-led assault, undertaken an aerial bombardment campaign, mobilized hundreds of thousands of reserve troops, and launched ground operations against Hamas in Gaza. Israel’s government has almost completely halted the supply of electricity, food, water, and fuel to Gaza, which before the conflict had already faced crisis-level economic and humanitarian conditions. On October 28, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the “second stage of the war, whose objectives are clear: To destroy the military and governmental capabilities of Hamas and bring the hostages home.”
The United Nations has stated that Gaza, with an estimated 1.4 million Gazans (more than half of the territory’s approximately 2.1 million people) displaced and major shortages in life-sustaining supplies, constitutes a major humanitarian crisis. U.S. officials have worked with Israel, Egypt, and the United Nations to allow for some international humanitarian assistance to enter Gaza from Egypt. The U.N. Secretary-General has repeatedly called for a humanitarian ceasefire.
Reportedly, more than 1,400 Israelis (and at least 36 U.S. citizens) and 8,500 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed as of October 31. Hundreds of U.S. citizens are estimated to be in Gaza, and the U.S. government is discussing safe passage for them with Egypt and Israel, with some people reportedly crossing into Egypt on November 1. Five hostages (including two Americans) have been released or rescued to date.
There are risks that the conflict could expand. For example, the Iran-backed Shia Islamist group Lebanese Hezbollah (another FTO) has exchanged fire with Israel and could create a second front at the Israel-Lebanon border. U.S. statements and actions, including expedited arms deliveries to Israel and the reported movement of major U.S. military assets, appear intended to warn Hezbollah or others not to get involved. U.S. officials have warned Iran of a strong response if groups Iran supports continue to target U.S. military positions in the region. Additionally, amid rising tensions and violence between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank, President Biden has called for attacks by “extremist settlers” against Palestinians to stop.
In October 2023, President Biden asked Congress to appropriate more than $8 billion in U.S. security assistance for Israel, and more than $9 billion in global humanitarian assistance amounts that could partly be allocated for Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel. Members of Congress have expressed differing views on the request and its various elements. Congress may consider whether or not to provide additional military assistance to Israel or humanitarian assistance for Palestinians and Israelis, perhaps partly based on whether the Biden Administration and Congress can ensure that any assistance would not be used beyond its intended purposes. Congress also may weigh other legislative and oversight options.
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