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Senators, protesters assail Blinken over Biden administration’s Israel policy

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By Patricia Zengerle, Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced criticism from the right and left over Israel policy in Congress on Tuesday, with Republicans accusing the Biden administration of failing Israel and Democrats saying it’s doing too little to help civilians in Gaza.

Furious protesters interrupted Blinken as he began his testimony before the Democratic-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There were shouts that he has “blood on his hands,” and Blinken flinched from a protester who approached him from behind waving a sign that said “criminal” before security officers carried her out of the room.

Blinken reiterated the support of President Joe Biden’s administration for Israel, but insisted it was focused on easing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“In the Middle East, we’re standing with Israel in its efforts to ensure what happened on October 7th never happens again, as we do everything we can to bring an end to the terrible human suffering in Gaza and prevent the conflict from spreading,” he said.

Blinken was scheduled to appear later on Tuesday before the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees diplomatic and foreign aid spending.

He returns to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for two more rounds of testimony at hearings of the Republican-led House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and a House appropriations subcommittee.

Republicans criticized Biden for saying this month that he would delay a shipment of bombs to Israel and consider withholding others if Israeli forces launched a major invasion of Rafah, a refugee-packed city in southern Gaza.

Billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance remain in the pipeline for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Republicans also called for action in response to the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s announcement on Monday that he had requested arrest warrants for Netanyahu and his defense minister over alleged war crimes in the Gaza conflict. The prosecutor, Karim Khan, also sought arrest warrants for three Hamas leaders.

Blinken said the Biden administration would be happy to work with Congress to formulate a response to what he called “a profoundly wrong-headed decision” regarding the warrants for the Israeli leaders.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS IN GAZA

Biden also faced criticism from some of his fellow Democrats, who want him to do more – including putting conditions on arms exports – to push Netanyahu’s government to protect Palestinian civilians. Israel is fighting to wipe out Hamas militants who attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Palestinian authorities say more than 35,000 people have been killed during Israel’s campaign in Gaza, many of them women and children. Malnutrition is widespread and much of the population of the coastal enclave has been left homeless, with much of the enclave’s infrastructure destroyed.

Israel-related demonstrations have been a feature of congressional appearances by Biden administration officials. When Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified on Oct. 31 about Biden’s request for security assistance for Ukraine and Israel, they were repeatedly interrupted by protesters.

Protests over Gaza have intensified across the United States since then, including on college campuses where there have been dozens of arrests, raising concerns about how they might affect Biden’s campaign for reelection against former Republican President Donald Trump.

A sweeping $95 billion foreign aid package for Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and humanitarian needs, finally passed Congress in April after being stalled for months by Republicans unhappy about the billions of dollars in assistance Washington has sent Kyiv as it battles Russian invaders.

The package only passed the House because a majority of Democrats supported it, and the parties remain divided over how much more help Washington should provide to Ukraine.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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