Thinking Through a U.S. Strategy Toward Gaza: A Congressional View
by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad
On March 3rd something that is (to my knowledge) unprecedented happened in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. A standing room only crowd of over 130 persons heard actual Congressmen (not just outsiders given a platform by Congressmen) objectively discuss the devastation recently visited upon Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces.
It began with an excerpt from a video about the Congressmen’s visit to Gaza that showed what was left of a day-care center. Although not much more than rubble, the center was host to an art exhibit that the staff insisted on mounting after its destruction because it was a center of life. There were also interviews with the staff of a hospital who, although their homes are only an 18-minute drive away, must go through an at least 90-minute (each way) check point every working day.
There was also a grocery store in Jaballia camp in which there were items on shelves thanks to the infamous tunnels. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) argued that it would be better to open the crossings where freight would be checked.
One must understand that none of the speakers blamed Israel for what happened. Indeed, all who spoke strongly emphasized that they were not taking sides and mentioned the anxieties that militants in Gaza have imposed on Israel with their rocket attacks. Nonetheless, when most in Congress and the mainstream media are in a state of denial about the humanitarian crisis, the fact that these few stood up to show pictures of bombed schools and displaced civilians indicates that there is change in the air and that the time for the Palestinian narrative to complement the other one that has monopolized the discourse in America is timely.
Ellison insisted that his call for opening the crossings, which he said was the only message he had to offer, would enhance Israeli security as well as alleviate the humanitarian crisis. He said that at no time did they hear any anti-American talk, nor anti-Israeli or pro-Hamas comments (although that may have been due to the fact that their visit was for only one day). Ellison noted that without a dedicated constituency, Gazans can expect no action. He noted that there is well-organized Israeli lobby and a somewhat less well-organized Palestinian lobby, but no peace lobby.
Brian Baird (D-WA) said that the original intention of the Congressional visit was for him and Ellison to speak on Islam in the West. Now, he said, the challenge is to be honest about what they have seen without being accused of taking sides. He felt that what has been done in the last couple of months gives people there hope, but that money is not sufficient. Neither the rockets nor the invasion has moved things forward; neither has advanced the prosperity or security of the people there.
Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) says he never feared for his safety and he never met anyone looking for a fight. He said he found only friendly children and people who wanted to get on with their lives. He expressed the view that letting aid go only through tunnels has not stopped the rockets and not advanced communication between the parties to the conflict, but only enriched outlaws. Holt mentioned seeing a science book at an American school there shredded by the bombings and Baird recalled a book about baseball that mentioned Jackie Robinson’s successful struggle against racism.
The respondent was Daniel Levy, Director of the Middle East Task Force of the New America Foundation. He remarked that the Congressmen had done a service for America’s public diplomacy by restoring hope. He thanked them for resisting playing the blame game and noted that the arbitrary definition of “basic food and medicine” that is now allowed at the Rafha crossing excludes toothpaste, building materials and item arbitrarily labeled ‘luxuries.’ Banknotes are not allowed in. Even when credit is deposited to a bank it can’t be withdrawn because there is no physical currency. He said these are collective sanctions rather than targeted sanctions. He concluded that to resolve the issue there needs to be a deal on Gilad Shalit, the crossings must be opened, and a cease fire accepted. What must not happen, he said, is to continue to hold the entire population hostage. The theory that deprivation of Gaza will cause them to overthrow Hamas has been disproven.
Levy explained that in 2005 there was an agreement that the Rafah crossing would not be used for commerce, and all commerce would go through the five Israeli crossings, but those crossings are now closed. Although 200 trucks now pass through Rafa, the minimal aid requirement is 500 trucks. Baird added that the crossing best equipped to screen trucks for contraband is not open.
In response to reporter Sally Quinn’s allegations of fears by “Arab and Muslim leaders” that Hamas will steal any aid and her inquiry as to whether Gazans are angry at or supportive of Hamas, Ellison replied that Gazans are focused on their survival. Baird added that there was a lot of discussion of long-term psychological effects on children and that they had heard at the Islamic Conference that if we don’t proactively reward moderates extremism will flourish. Because of the frequency of allegations of a “hate filled curriculum,” he asked the children about their attitudes toward the U.S. and got typical kid answers. Levy added that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact the Fatah position was that by working with the U.S. and Israel they would deliver a Palestinian state; all these years after the handshake on the White House lawn that has become a tough promise to sell. There is a recognition now that Hamas is part of the landscape like it or not.
In response to a question from a reporter from Al Jazeera as to whether the trip and program signaled a real shift in American policy, Baird replied that “you can criticize a friend and still be a friend.” He feels that many in Congress would like resolutions to be more measured and nuanced. Ellison noted that in Israel it is okay to talk about these things; it is only in Washington that politicians fear derision for stating the obvious.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute