Rare Congressional event: 20 Dems debate Israel-Palestine

Rare Congressional event: 20 Dems debate Israel-Palestine

(left) Kathy Manning (D-NC) speaks to House Democrats about her support for Israel; (right) Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), a Palestinian American, describes the Palestinian plight.

A special gathering of Dem House members discussed Israel-Palestine… here’s what they said.

News analysis by Kathryn Shihadah

Last Thursday evening, In a Special Order Hour – a time for debating non-legislative issues – a group of pro-Israel Democrats faced off against another group critical of Israel. Some of their messages are summarized below.

Dems who support Israel’s actions

Up first were 9 pro-Israel Democrats. Jewish Insider provided highlights of the speeches, in which pro-Israel speakers underscored the US’s alliance with Israel, the danger of rockets from Gaza, and the designation of Hamas – the ruling party in the enclave – as a terrorist organization.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) asserted,

Even though we may not always agree about Israel’s policies, we should be very clear that nothing — nothing — justifies a terrorist organization firing rockets at our ally.

Rep. Ted Deutch claimed that “this moment calls for…moral clarity,” adding,

If I’m asked to choose between a terrorist organization and our Democratic ally, I’ll stand with Israel every single day of the week, and so will you, and so will you, and so will you Mr. Speaker.

Gottheimer and Deutch reflected the position of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee – one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the US). AIPAC perpetuates the characterization of Gaza’s ruling party, Hamas, as a “terrorist group” in order to accomplish its goal: persuading Congress to give Israel the largest possible amount of aid (currently $3.8 billion a year).

screenshot from AIPAC homepage (www.aipac.org)

In fact, Hamas is a Palestinian political party with an armed resistance wing to oppose the Israeli occupation. In the past, Hamas – which was created in part by Israel – was responsible for acts of terror against the Israeli population, and called for its destruction (though at no point did it have power to do it).

In 2017, Hamas adopted a less aggressive stance. In keeping with international law, the new Hamas charter retains the right to armed resistance, although its capabilities are limited. The “rockets” it launches toward Israel are homemade and for the most part ineffective.

When Elaine Luria (D-VA) came up to speak, she argued,

Today — in their rightful homeland, [Jews] are attacked…Some call them villains for defending their homes and their families; for not turning a cheek and a blind eye to terror and bombings and missiles raining down. 

Who would turn a cheek when their mere right to exist is questioned?  

[We] must declare: That Israel has a right to exist. 

Luria’s assertion that Jews in Israel live “in their rightful homeland” lacks context and is disputed: while there has always been a small Jewish presence in the land, the vast majority of Jews in today’s Israel are at most second or third generation immigrants who live on land taken by force from the indigenous Palestinian population. Their official explanation for exiling the Palestinians is that, according to a highly questionable interpretation of a few verses in the Hebrew, the land was given to them by God. Palestinians maintain that Israel does not have a “right to exist” on the land of and in place of indigenous peoples.

As the meeting continued, pro-Israel Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) remarked that

Israel has taken serious steps to de-escalate the conflict while Hamas has only escalated its attacks.

Israel supporters often measure aggressions between Hamas and Israel as a simple tally of rockets vs. airstrikes. But while Israel’s airstrikes number in the hundreds, and Hamas rockets are in the thousands, there is no comparison in the potential for death and destruction.

A rocket from Gaza (if not intercepted by Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system) often lands in an unpopulated area; if it makes it to an urban area, it may damage a house. In 20 years (prior to the current outbreak) that resistance groups in Gaza have used rockets, they had killed 30 Israelis.

On the other hand, an Israeli airstrike involves bombs. In the 2014 invasion of Gaza – which was tame compared to the current conflict – it was estimated that Israel dropped at least 18,000-20,000 tons of explosives (read the details here).

rockets vs airstrikes
(left) Israelis inspect the damage to their house following a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip, city of Sderot, May 15, 2021. (right) Al-Wehda street, leading to Al-Shifaa Hospital, Gaza Governorate. During the current escalation, Israeli forces have destroyed over 7,400 Gazan homes, while Palestinian resistance groups have destroyed 5 Israeli homes to date (Tuesday, 11 am PST).

The lethality of the Israeli weapons, along with Israel’s willingness to bomb residential areas and even refugee camps, is pertinent to the casualty figures, which, for the last 3 invasions, have been roughly 40 times higher in Gaza.

Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC) used her speaking time to describe her experience while visiting Sderot, an Israeli town near the Gaza border.

I’ve been in Israel when rockets were fired from Gaza in Sderot. I know the terror of running for cover with sirens blaring overhead, not knowing whether I’d make it in time.

Manning’s experience did not include a tour of the Gaza enclave, where unemployment (before the pandemic) was around 75%; food, medicine, and other staples were in short supply due to a 14-year blockade; much of the water was undrinkable; electricity was in short supply, and more. She lacks the context in which the rockets are launched: resistance against blockade and occupation.

Ms. Manning also seems unaware of the desperation of the nearly 2 million residents of Gaza (about 70% of which are families of refugees who were exiled in 1948, and whose homes and land were taken from them) who live without basic human rights – all inflicted by Israel. (See a video about Manning here.)

Following these speeches, Democrats on the other side of the issue were given the floor.

Dems who support Palestinian human rights

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), who has introduced groundbreaking legislation to end support for the incarceration of Palestinian children, declared,

The unrestricted, unconditioned $3.8 billion in annual U.S. military aid … gives a green light to Israel’s occupation of Palestine because there is no accountability and there is no oversight by Congress. This must change. Not one dollar of U.S. aid to Israel should go towards a military detention of Palestinian children, the annexation of Palestinian lands or the destruction of Palestinian homes.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), a Palestinian American, spoke knowingly about the experience of the Palestinian people, describing the daily humiliations and dangers they face, as well as the struggle to tell the story of their own dispossession, adding, “I am a reminder to colleagues that Palestinians do indeed exist” (see her full speech here).

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a Somali American, empathized with the plight of the Palestinians as she recalled her childhood and the trauma of living through the repeated bombing of her town. “I understand on a deeply human level the pain and the anguish families are feeling in Palestine and Israel at the moment,” she asserted (see her full speech here).

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has sometimes flip flopped on Palestine, mentioned  “the rights of Palestinians and Israelis alike” while asserting:  the United States must acknowledge its role in the injustice and human rights violations of Palestinians.” (See AOC’s full speech here.)

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) questioned the decades-long status quo on Capitol Hill of unconditional support for Israel:

Many say that conditioning aid is not a phrase I should utter here, but let me be clear: No matter the context, American government dollars always come with conditions. The question at hand is should our taxpayer dollars create conditions for justice, healing, and repair, or should those dollars create conditions for oppression and apartheid.

(See Pressley’s full speech here.)

Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), described how a local Palestinian activist had educated her on Palestine, and called for an end to financial support for Israel (see Bush’s speech here).

Five other House Democrats also spoke in support of the Palestinian plight, some of them simultaneously condemning Hamas rockets. (Notably, in 20 years, rockets from Gaza have killed about 40 Israelis – while Israeli counter-rocket airstrikes have killed about 100 times the number of Palestinians.)

The 20 who spoke:

The 9 pro-Israel legislators who spoke at the Thursday event were: Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Elaine Luria (D-VA), Brad Schneider (D-IL), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Ted Deutch (D-FL), Kathy Manning (D-NC), Jim Costa (D-CA) and Lois Frankel (D-FL).

The 11 who stood up for Palestinian human rights were: Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Cori Bush (D-MO), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Jesús García (D-IL), André Carson (D-IN) and Joaquín Castro (D-TX).

Kathryn Shihadah is an editor and staff writer for If Americans Knew. She also blogs at Palestine Home.




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