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Israel at war

How the Hamas attack affects U.S. foreign policy

Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a donation center for victims of the Hamas attacks in Tel Aviv on Thursday Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin, pool

Israel at war

While conflict in the Middle East is not new to the international landscape, Saturday’s coordinated incursion by Hamas militants into Israel took the world by surprise. Most of the global community has been united in support of Israel, but what does this mean for the United States? Here’s what we know about U.S. involvement so far:

Will the United States join the war?

The United States has no treaty obligation to help Israel defend itself. Israel is a member of the UN, which has sent humanitarian aid and emergency assistance to civilians. But Israel is one of 18 countries designated as major non-NATO allies according to U.S. law. This makes it eligible for specific trade and security cooperation and loans. MNNAs can also be considered purchasers for depleted uranium ammunition. Notably, Israel is a location for war reserve stockpiles, which the United States controls.

What are these stockpiles?

The United States created War Reserves Stock Allies–Israel, also known as WRSA-I, in 1984 to pre-position arms and munitions in case of war. The reserve is intended to supply U.S. forces, but Israel may withdraw from it with the approval of Congress. This also gives Israel a stronger defense position without being a treaty ally of the United States. WRSA-I is the United States’ largest such stockpile, holding roughly $1.8 billion worth of ammunition, smart bombs, missiles, military vehicles, and a roaming military hospital. The stock is dispersed across six locations throughout Israel. The Israel Defense Forces received approval to withdraw from the reserves during the 2014 conflict with Gaza. Israel also received approval to send some artillery rounds to Ukraine last year and has yet to resupply that loss.

How many Americans are involved?

As of Wednesday afternoon, 22 Americans have been killed, according to the U.S. State Department. But casualty and death counts coming from both sides of the conflict are constantly changing and have not been verified by reporters on the ground. The Israeli military has reported more than 1,200 people killed so far, the vast majority of whom were civilians. Thousands more have been wounded. Israel also says Hamas and other militant groups have kidnapped more than 150 people, and factions have threatened to kill a hostage for every Israeli bomb that hits a civilian target without warning. At a speech on Tuesday night, President Joe Biden confirmed that Hamas has also taken Americans hostage, but he did not confirm how many. The State Department says at least 20 Americans are unaccounted for. The United States has suspended all commercial flights to Israel, and no airlifts are currently planned.

Has there been a U.S. military response?

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has sent a carrier strike group to the Mediterranean Sea. These forces were already conducting training exercises off the coast of Italy and would remain near enough to Israel to assist with defense and deterrence as needed. It is led by the USS Gerald R. Ford, the U.S. Navy’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier. It also boasts roughly 5,000 sailors and a deck of warplanes. Several cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft squadrons join the carrier. These forces can intercept weapons shipped to Hamas or assist the Israeli military with surveillance. The Israel Defense Force said the first plane of U.S. munitions arrived in southern Israel on Tuesday.

What about the Israel–Saudi Arabia deal?

The Trump administration started brokering a normalization agreement called the Abraham Accords, which was an effort to boost Israel’s standing in the Middle East and create trade and policy agreements with its Arab neighbors. The problem was that these agreements were conditioned on ignoring the Palestinians’ demand for statehood, which raised loud protests from pro-Palestinian groups, especially militant ones like Hamas. The Biden administration has since moderated talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia, with the hope that a normalization of relations between the two neighbors could also rope in Egypt and Morocco to de-escalate tensions not only with Hamas but throughout the Middle East. But since the war between Israel and Hamas began, Saudi Arabia has taken a step back. Its foreign ministry issued a statement that lamented the violence but did not condemn Hamas aggression. Instead, it reminded the world that the kingdom has often warned that the accords provoked the Palestinian people.

Didn’t Biden recently send money to Iran?

On Sept. 11, the Biden administration agreed to unfreeze $6 billion in a deal with Iran to release five American hostages. While it is not confirmed that Iran is funding Hamas, the nation has supported the militant group before and expressed animosity toward the existence of Israel. Critics of the Iran deal have accused President Biden of sending the final check that made Saturday’s invasion possible. But the White House says the money could not have been used for the war. The $6 billion came from oil payments from South Korea to Iran, with the U.S. sanctions freezing the assets. For the hostage deal, Biden issued a blanket waiver to allow international banks to transfer that money to Qatar to be held in an account in Doha. (Qatar is also an MNNA.) The conditions on the money are that the Iranian government can only withdraw it for humanitarian purposes and it can only be doled out to non-Iranian vendors. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said all the money in the Doha account was still there as of this weekend. Iran’s access could change at any time, though. “We have strict oversight of the funds, and we retain the right to freeze them,” Blinken said at a news conference on Thursday.

How has the U.S. government responded?

House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said lawmakers are preparing a resolution to “stand with Israel” and condemn the Hamas attack. But until the House elects a new speaker, Congress cannot issue such a resolution or even conduct committee business. President Biden has said the United States will ensure Israel has “what it needs to defend itself.” He also called the Hamas attack “unconscionable.” The National Security Council has said it will conduct “proportionate action.” But with both Israeli and Hamas forces calling for the obliteration of the other, it is not clear what this action could entail.

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


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