“Capitol Hill is Israeli Occupied Territory.” – Patrick J. Buchanan
Above: Sen. Charles Schumer (l), the New York Democrat who is running for re-election this year, “schmoozes” with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during a March 23, 2010 photo op on Capitol Hill. (AFP photo/Tim Sloan)
Breaking the Siege on Capitol Hill
By Susan Kerin
Source: Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs
When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu canceled his trip to Washington, DC the day after Israel’s May 31 attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, he came home to demonstrations by his own citizens protesting the attack.
The irony is that, had Netanyahu kept his June 1 appointment in Washington, DC, he may well have found a more receptive audience on Capitol Hill than anywhere else in the world. While to date President Barack Obama has made no reference to Israel’s culpability in the attack, and Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have reaffirmed Israel’s right to self-defense (implying that the attack on the flotilla was an example of that), many members of Congress have gone even further in their efforts to reaffirm their support for the Jewish State.
Extreme examples include Rep. Brad Sherman’s (D-CA) call to arrest and prosecute any U.S. citizen affiliated with the freedom flotilla and Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D-NY) declaration that we need “to strangle” the Palestinian people. Sherman’s declaration is particularly interesting because, in citing the specific legislation which criminalizes humanitarian relief to Gaza, he in effect reveals to the world that the U.S. is more than a bystander to the blockade, it actively contributes to it, albeit through legislative restrictions versus physical border restrictions like Israel’s and Egypt’s.
This time, however, what is even more disturbing than the usual saber-rattling of the more pro-Israel congressional representatives is the response of elected members of Congress who either had a constituent aboard the flotilla or serve on a committee which gives them the authority to request an investigation by the U.S. State Department.
The week prior to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla voyage, Free Gaza staff contacted approximately 50 legislative aides on the Hill to notify them of the upcoming voyage and request that they contact the Israeli Embassy and State Department to secure the safety of the passengers, including 14 American citizens. According to Andrew Kennedy, who hand-delivered some of the letters, “we specifically targeted representatives who either had constituents on board the ship, belonged to the Foreign Appropriations subcommittee that gives Israel its military aid, or are members of the Executive Committee for the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, because we thought they would be the ones most likely to respond and take action to protect the ships.”
While many never responded even after news reports of fatalities from the Israeli attack, others issued harshly worded statements favoring Israel over their own constituents.
For example, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who was contacted prior to the boat’s departure, had two constituents on board: Kathy Sheetz, a nurse, and Fiachra O’Luain, an Irishman whose father lives in Boston. During his detention in Israel, O’Luain was beaten to the point of torture. While Kerry—who has visited Gaza—did intercede on his constituents’ behalf, he then issued a three-sentence statement which appeared on AIPAC’s Web site. Each sentence includes the phrase “Israel has the right.” It should be noted that Kerry chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, giving him the authority to schedule a hearing on the matter or mandate that the U.S. State Department conduct its own investigation.
Similarly, Maryland’s two Democratic senators, Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin, were contacted in advance and notified that one of their constituents, Ambassador Edward Peck, would be traveling with the flotilla on the Greek ship Sfendoni. Even after the attack and several follow-up phone calls, none of their aides responded. In fact, according to Ambassador Peck’s wife, she was never even contacted to see if they were alright or needed assistance.
The day after the attack on the boats, both senators were notified that another constituent of theirs, 21-year-old college student Emily Henochowicz of Potomac MD, had lost her eye in a West Bank demonstration when Israeli border police shot a high-velocity tear gas canister directly at her. What was particularly disturbing about the senators’ lack of response to Emily’s case was that in 2009, following the injuring of Tristan Anderson and the death of Basem Abu Ramhe due to the misuse of high-velocity tear gas canisters, constituents met face-to-face with aides from both senators’ offices to specifically request that they take actions to ensure that the misuse of these weapons would not continue.
As did Kerry, both Mikulski and Cardin provided validating statements on the AIPAC website regarding Israel’s attack on the freedom flotilla. Cardin cited Israel’s “right to…protect its citizens from terror” and calls for an internal investigation. Also like Kerry, Cardin, a member of the Foreign Relations subcommittee covering the Middle East, has the authority to call for a congressional hearing on the matter or mandate that the State Department conduct an investigation. Thus far he has done neither.
Mikulski’s statement implied that the contents of the ships could be used to make “dirty bombs.” In 2007, it should be noted, Mikulski sponsored a resolution calling for the release of Israeli POW Gilad Shalit. When asked to issue a similar resolution on behalf of her own constituent regarding the misuse of high-velocity tear gas canisters, however, her office refused.
During a June 10 protest against Sherman’s call for the arrest of human rights activists, Adam Shapiro, a member of Free Gaza’s interim board, noted the growing disparity between constituents and their representatives on this issue: “It’s clear that Congress’ policies, its votes, its positions on this conflict are so out of tune with the rest of the world, and even with the American public, that it’s beyond belief.”
Josh Ruebner, national advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, agreed, but also stressed the importance of “civic activism”—the need for constituents to commit to a long-term, sustained grassroots advocacy effort in order to reconcile congressional response to constituent opinion.
“It would be naive to think that members of Congress will change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine out of the goodness of their hearts,” Ruebner said, “or that they will arrive at an epiphany that Palestinians are human beings who deserve to have their human rights respected. That’s not the way that Washington works. Policy gets created from organized interest groups, and policy changes occur when people organize to demand them [or pay for them]. That is why it is imperative that people who are concerned about Palestinian human rights and a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians organize themselves in a way to generate sustained education and pressure on their members of Congress.
Constituents for progressive representatives such as Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Betty McCollum (D-MN) agree, noting that the positions these congresswomen have taken advocating an end to the blockade came about only after numerous visits and contacts [i.e., sustained pressure] by constituents.
To facilitate this effort, the U.S. Campaign has launched a “Legislative Project” which provides resources and enables advocacy chapters to coalesce at the local level in an effort to provide a sustained effort to break the siege on Capitol Hill. Kennedy reaffirms the importance of this project, noting that “the international waters on the Mediterranean Sea served as the frontline in terms of breaking the siege of Gaza, but it is breaking the siege on Capitol Hill that will have the greatest impact on Israel’s actions. For the sake of those who died and were injured, we owe them that.”
For more information on the U.S. Campaign’s Legislative Project, visit www.endtheoccupation.org. For more information on Free Gaza correspondences with Congress prior to the flotilla, visit www.peaceactionmc.org.
Susan Kerin is Eastern U.S. co-coordinator for the Free Gaza Movement.