Posted by Guest on May 30, 2018 in Blog

By Blaise Malley

Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States presented Democrats with an ideal counterpoint to some of their long-held beliefs. Many in Congress have seized the opportunity to combat Trump’s divisive and regressive policies. However, one area in which they have continued to fall short is regarding the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

Criticizing Israel has historically been a difficult road for politicians to travel, but with President Trump’s essentially unconditional support for the country, and Democratic voters’ increasing sympathy toward Palestine, it appeared possible that the position of the party toward the decades-long conflict could be shifting.

President Trump’s irresponsible decision to move the United States embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and the subsequent violence directed by Israeli forces at protesters in Gaza presented an interesting test for how much these lawmakers were willing to say.

At first, many expressed their support for the embassy move, including the most powerful Democrat in the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who issued a statement saying:

“In a long overdue move, we have moved our embassy to Jerusalem. Every nation should have the right to choose its capital. I sponsored legislation to do this two decades ago, and I applaud President Trump for doing it.”

Even those Senators who did feel the need to issue some caution regarding Trump’s reckless move made it clear that the problem was not that the Israelis did not have the right to an Embassy in Jerusalem, but rather that it was not the right time to undergo such a radical transformation.

“Jerusalem is and always will be the capital of the state of Israel. I continue to believe that we should recognize it as such and move our embassy there when the time is right as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. But former Republican and Democratic presidents alike have understood the monumental security and foreign policy challenges inherent in moving our embassy, and have decided to delay the move in order to focus on making peace,” said Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT). “I am concerned that President Trump’s decision was made without fully considering the political and security implications, and will further set back any hope of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians,” he added.

The announcement regarding the embassy move in December 2017 was only the first in a series of tragic and devastating events for the Palestinian people. In the lead-up to the embassy move, scheduled to coincide with the Nakba on May 15th, Gazans began to launch peaceful protests, both opposing the embassy and the horrific treatment that they have endured for years under Israeli occupation.

In the days before and following the ceremony that marked the opening of a new embassy, the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza estimates that 116 were killed and over 13,000 were injured, marking the deadliest period in the conflict since the 2014 war on Gaza.

While the Trump administration absolved Israel of responsibility for shooting civilians, and squarely placed the blame for these deaths entirely on Hamas instead, there was an opportunity for some politicians to demonstrate that they were prepared to stand up for human rights, regardless of who the victims or perpetrators were.

While only a handful of Senators and Representatives issued statements condemning Israel, those who did showed a willingness to blame Israel in a way that has rarely been seen in U.S. politics. Important figures within the Democratic party such as Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) were among the most prominent voices that spoke out against the Israeli army’s use of lethal force.

“I am deeply concerned about the deaths and injuries in Gaza,” Warren said on April 12. “As additional protests are planned for the coming days, the Israel Defense Forces should exercise restraint and respect the rights of Palestinians to peacefully protest.”  

Sanders added “Over 50 killed in Gaza today and 2,000 wounded, on top of the 41 killed and more than 9,000 wounded over the past weeks. This is a staggering toll. Hamas violence does not justify Israel firing on unarmed protesters. The United States must play an aggressive role in bringing Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and the international community together to address Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and stop this escalating violence."

“It’s just heartbreaking. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is desperate,” stated Feinstein “Instead of cutting aid, the Trump administration must restore our leadership role and do what it can to alleviate the Palestinians’ suffering.”

Leahy, who made sure to blame both Hamas and Israel for the outbreak, issued perhaps the most critical statement towards the Israeli army of any Senator when he said, “Shooting protesters, many of whom were reportedly unarmed or throwing rocks which did not justify such a disproportionate response, is deplorable. It should be thoroughly investigated and anyone responsible, including those who gave the orders, held accountable.

Later, eleven Democratic Senators, led by Sanders, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to increase the United States’ efforts to end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and a handful of lawmakers, including Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), and Danny Davis (D-IL)  took to Twitter to call out President Trump and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu for their roles in inciting the violence.

Of course, there is still a long way to go. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the second highest ranking Democrat in Congress expressed his support for Netanyahu and Israel. Overall, the majority of lawmakers made no comment in response to the loss of life in Gaza.

Although this is clearly a difficult path to navigate—no politician wants to give the impression of defending Hamas, which is designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization and which tried to capitalize on the protests—there were real human consequences on the ground. There were not only geopolitical implications, but also more than 100 dead, including an estimated 13 children under the age of 18, and at least one medic and one journalist, with many more suffering injuries.

The current situation in Gaza is inhumane and uninhabitable. The living conditions have regularly been referred to as an open-air prison. Seventy-seven percent of Gazans are currently under the poverty line, and most struggle to obtain electricity or clean water. The Israeli blockade also renders it practically impossible for residents to obtain a visa to leave to area, and the current Egyptian government has only intermittently opened its border to allow Gazans in and out.

If the ultimate goal is to orchestrate a fair and lasting peace between the two sides of the conflict, it is necessary for both Israel and Palestine to be held accountable for their actions. By failing to accomplish this goal, the US Congress has continued to emboldened and increasingly aggressive Netanyahu and failed to take the proper steps to ensure that peace remains a possibility in the future.

Blaise Malley is a Summer 2018 intern at the Arab American Institute.