WASHINGTON — There was tough talk for Israel on Friday afternoon in the halls of Congress.
“The use of force in Israel is in no way legitimate self-defense.” “Friends don’t let friends kill children.” “Where is the Iron Dome for the civilians in Gaza?”
The condemnations, however, came not from U.S. lawmakers but from activists who organized a congressional briefing examining whether Israel has committed human rights abuses and broken U.S. and international law in its latest military campaign on the Gaza Strip.
The consensus at the briefing, set up by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, was a resounding yes, with panelists asserting that the U.S. government was complicit in the violations of international protocol by supplying Israel with millions of dollars in military aid.
“I woke up this morning and I learned that my tax dollars killed eight of my family members in Gaza. They were given an eight-second warning,” said Laila el-Haddad, a Palestinian-American author and activist. “It is unheard of, unprecedented in modern day history for a population that is already besieged and blockaded to be bombarded in this way, while world leaders and governments sit silently and watch, and in the case of our government, pays.”
Sunjeev Berry, a lawyer for Amnesty International in Washington, said Israel’s aggressive assault, in purported retaliation for Hamas rockets, amounted to “collective punishment” for 1.8 million Gaza residents, classified as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Panelists also asserted that the supply of arms to Israel violated the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, which mandates that weapons supplied by the American government be used for “legitimate self-defense.”
“It is ridiculous for Secretary of State John Kerry to talk about a cease-fire while the U.S government is releasing even more artillery shells and more money to the Israeli forces at the same time,” Berry said. “When will the United States hold its ally accountable?”
Others drew attention to the day-to-day state of affairs for Palestinian residents living under Israeli rule in both the West Bank and Gaza.
Tariq Khdeir, 15, shared the story of how he was arrested, held without charges and brutally beaten by Israeli authorities in the West Bank for participating in protests after his cousin, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was found dead, believed to be murdered by Israeli extremists in retaliation for the murder of three Israeli teenagers. Khdeir’s family said he participated in no such protests.
His lawyer, Hassan Shibly, who works for the Council for American-Islamic Relations, said it was mind-boggling to think that a government that discriminated on the base of ethnic origin and religion could receive unequivocal military support for the United States.
“Had they a different faith and a different ethnic origin they would have a whole different set of rights,” he said of Palestinian residents. “It’s inhumane, it’s barbaric, it’s uncivilized.”
The searing criticism and rhetoric was a far cry from the near-unanimous support Israel enjoys from U.S. lawmakers and the view that even in the most recent conflict, where the death toll for Palestinian civilians has surpassed 1,600, Israel is acting out of legitimate self-defense.
The Obama administration has corroborated that assessment, with Congress also in rare bipartisan lock-step on the issue. The Senate voted by unanimous consent earlier Friday morning to direct $225 million to Israel for its Iron Dome missile-defense system, with the House expected to approve the package before it leaves for its summer recess.
The public is more divided. A Pew Research Center poll released Monday found that 40 percent of the American public believes Hamas is responsible for the current violence, with 19 percent blaming Israel. Among Democrats, 29 percent blame Hamas, 26 percent say Israel is at fault, and 18 percent fault both parties.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the only Muslim-American in Congress, appeared to be the only lawmaker at the briefing. Ellison has called for Israel to end its blockade on Gaza and for a cease-fire but has stopped short of condemning the nation’s military siege, now in its fourth week.
Amnesty's Berry said there was a “sense of false majority” on views of Israel, but there were more real ruptures than what was immediately apparent.
“Congress is sometimes a lagging indicator [of public opinion],” Berry said. “Ask nicely, ask again and then ask not so nicely and get in the faces of those who hold power.”