An explosive event on Capitol Hill. About 150 people crammed into a hearing room with seats for 70 to hear Congressmen Keith Ellison (D. Minn.) and Brian Baird (D. Wash) report on their last month’s trip to Gaza. The indispensable New America Foundation sponsored.
The atmosphere evokes, I dunno, 1965. Something is in the air, but it’s just beginning, its shape not yet clear. Behind me young Congress staffers are talking about their college connections, their Arabic classes, their Hebrew.
A young man from The Israel Project politely leaflets the crowd with counter talking points. Israel didn’t “deliberately” target a school, says Clinton administration alum Lanny Davis in one of the handouts. Another tallies up the vast bounty of aid Israel is letting through to Gaza.
Ellison and Baird arrive, along with NAM’s brilliant Daniel Levy. Baird is relaxed, rangy, athletic looking for 53. Ellison is younger, a bit stocky like the very normal husband in a TV commercial. Philip Weiss is right, this doesn’t have the vibe of Congressional left, of Conyers, and Ron Dellums and Kucinich. Dissent on America’s Middle East policy has hit the mainstream.
They show a video for a while, skipping from segment to segment. A former Gaza industrial park, inactive since 2006 when Israel cut off its raw materials, is completely leveled—it could be Frankfurt in 1945. Baird and Ellison pick though the shell of the American School, the one the Israelis with their high tech guidance systems didn’t “deliberately” target. Baird speaks of finding a book about baseball, with a chapter on Jackie Robinson and prejudice with a teacher’s lesson markings, buried in the rubble. They visit a mental health clinic, its shell still standing after bombing and the children’s space within it with its walls intact, the large Disney character drawings visible. Baird, once a practicing clinical psychologist, speaks of how difficult it is to create safe environments for the mentally stressed. The mind boggles.
The message is straightforward. The crossings, controlled by Israel – and where Israel prevents the importation of foodstuffs, medical and construction material, must be fully opened. Baird says that half of Gaza’s population is under 18, and America has a tremendous opportunity to heal a wound if we dedicate ourselves to peace. There are 300 million Muslims in the region, and everywhere they went they heard concerns about Palestine. There are, he carefully acknowledges, wrongs on both sides, and he talks of his visit to Sderot, and the trauma caused by the rockets. It’s not just Gaza—he talks of Augusta Victoria Hospital, a Lutheran enterprise in East Jerusalem. Israel checkpoints make sure that Arab staff members have five hour daily commutes for a fifteen mile drive from Ramallah or Bethlehem. What rockets did the nurses fire?
Congressman Rush Holt arrives, mentions that he visited too and was struck at the lack of Palestinian hostility towards Americans. I’ve experienced this too, and it is, to tell the truth, amazing.
We are back at the question of what Israel lets in through the Gaza crossings, and what not. Concrete for rebuilding is of course forbidden, because the Palestinians might make “bunkers” out of it. So is toothpaste, So is pasta, though, perhaps under Hillary Clinton’s remonstrating, Israel seems to have relented on that.
In the question, Ellison and Baird came back to broader issues, public diplomacy, hope, the children of Gaza and the region, the sense that this whole thing just can’t be allowed to go on has it has for the past forty years, worsening all the time. America’s security requires a just peace settlement. Two mainstream Congressman, intent on remaking America’s image in the Middle East central to their mission. Their success can’t come soon enough.