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Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the women-led peace group CODEPINK and the human rights/fair trade group Global Exchange.

September 16th, 2011 10:06 PM

Congress Sees Middle East Through AIPAC-Colored Glasses

During August recess this year, 81 members of Congress went on a junket to Israel funded by the Israel lobby group AIPAC (well, funded by the American Israel Education Fund, but they are really one and the same) to “learn first-hand about one of our closest friends and allies.” While the representatives insist they got a balanced view, their itinerary belies that claim: 95% of their time was spent hearing the Israeli government point of view, with only one token meeting with Palestinian reps.

CODEPINK has filed a complaint with the Congressional Ethics Committee stating that these trips—and the upcoming ones scheduled for December–violate the Congressional prohibition on traveling with a lobby group. We feel these Potemkin voyages are part of AIPAC’s grand plan to control and monopolize Congress, which is not just unethical, but dangerous. Their bias reinforces a disastrous U.S. policy of unconditional support for Israel that obstructs peace and runs counter to our national interests.

At a recent Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, entitled “Promoting Peace? Reexamining US Aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA)”, we got a glimpse of what happens when Congress views the Middle East through AIPAC-colored glasses. Here are a few of examples of their tunnel vision:

*  Asking the wrong questions: Congress is intent on looking into the $600 million a year U.S. taxpayers give to the Palestinian Authority, especially at a time, as a few members brought up, of economic hardship in the United States. But they would not dare hold a hearing about the more important issue: the $3 billion a year we are giving to the Israeli government–which is five times what we give the Palestinian Authority. The question they should be asking, but won’t, is: How can American taxpayers afford to give “military aid” to the wealthy government of Israel, especially when that government uses our funds to drop white phosphorous on civilians in Gaza, kill international humanitarians on boats trying to break the Gaza siege, bulldoze Palestinian homes and orchards, and imprison peaceful protesters?” CODEPINK was in the hearing with signs saying “No More $$ to Israel”, but we were not even allowed to quietly hold them.

*   Listening to the wrong people: While the hearing was about Palestine, not one of the four witnesses was Palestinian-American, Arab-American, or even sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view. Like the AIPAC-junkets to Israel, this Washington hearing was completely one-sided. Three of the four people testifying before the Committee were Jewish, and all four were white men from conservative think tanks that take the side of the Israeli government. One of the witnesses was none other than convicted criminal Elliott Abrams, who, after the Iran-Contra scandal, went on to covertly arm Fatah after Hamas won the 2006 elections in Gaza, leading to a bloody conflict and inadvertently, to a Hamas takeover of all of Gaza. What great credentials for giving Congress advice on the Middle East!

When we asked the committee staff why there was not one pro-Palestinian voice on the panel, we were told to be quiet or we’d be ejected from the hearing.

*   Polluting the atmosphere with racist comments:
Not once was the plight of the Palestinians under occupation even mentioned. Instead, Democrats and Republicans across the board made sweeping statements that were embarrassingly racist. “Sending aid to the PA reinforces bad behavior,” said Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lethinen. “The Palestinians refuse to negotiate and they glorify violence,” she added. Cong. Carnahan wanted to know why there are no “honest actors” among the Palestinians. Elliot Abrams added, “The Palestinians have been cursed by a failure of leadership for 100 years.” There was no mention, of course, that some of the best Palestinian leaders can be found in Israeli jails.

At the end of the day, one message that could clearly be taken away from the hearing was that all Palestinians (except perhaps Salem Fayyad, who they didn’t think was so bad) are ungrateful, Jew-hating, terror-worshipping freeloaders who are too lazy to work for peace and who glorify violence. It obviously didn’t fit into the AIPAC junket agenda to introduce any of the committee members to peace activists in the West Bank who organize nonviolent protests against the occupation on a weekly basis.

*   Ignoring history/denying reality: It was painful to listen to the whole hearing, but one particular lament of Congress was arguably the most offensive. “Ah, Israel has given up so much land, and done so much for peace. When are the Palestinians going to make some concessions and do anything at all for peace?”, asked Cong. Rohrbacher, throwing up his hands in disgust. The Palestinians still want the right to return “so that they can destroy Israel,” he added. Cong. Poe complained that Israel has given so much land for peace that “pretty soon they’re gonna run outta land.” Witness Schanzer denounced “100 years of Palestinian nationalism, which has been more concerned with destroying Israel than constructing a viable Palestinian state.”
Putting aside the fact that the West Bank and Gaza territories represent a fraction of historical Palestine, Congress completely ignores the fact that thousands of acres of Palestinian land have been confiscated by the Israeli government to establish dozens of settlements and populate them with hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers. When the word settlement came up, it was not in the context of land theft but to chide the Obama administration for focusing too much on settlements in its first two years and creating a rift with the Israeli government.

* Targeting the victims:  
As if pointing the finger at the Palestinians for all the Middle East’s woes wasn’t enough, to its delight the committee found a new target to defund and shut down: UNRWA, the United Nations Refugee Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. UNRWA assists about 5 million Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East, including those who were displaced during the creation of the state of Israel and their descendants. UNRWA provides these refugees with basic services such as education and healthcare. The surrounding Arab countries where millions of Palestinian refugees live refuse to grant many of them citizenship, thus denying them the ability to work and receive social services. Without UNRWA, these people would basically be left with nothing.

Instead of acknowledging this sad reality, members of Congress nodded their heads in eager agreement as witness Jonathan Schanzer insisted that UNRWA be shut down. “UNRWA treats the Palestinians more like clients than refugees,” he claimed, thus perpetuating the refugee problem. The only dissenting voice around shutting down UNRWA was David Makovsky, who cautioned that the Israeli government might hate UNRWA, but it would not like to see it shut down because then Israel would have to pay for those services it provides, including schooling Palestinian refugee kids.

* Shutting off the lights
: One witness, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, had just returned from Ramallah with news about the “electricity scam.” The PA, he said, was supplying power to Palestinians in Gaza, but Hamas–which controls Gaza–was charging people and pocketing the money. Since the US funds the PA, we were enabling this scam. Committee Chair Ros-Lethinen was horrified and indicated that cutting off funds for electricity (i.e. turning out the lights on 1.6 million people) might be in order. No one mentioned that Israel bombed Gaza’s sole power plant during the 2008 invasion, and today it is still only partially functioning. No one mentioned that Israel continues to restrict the entry of spare parts to rebuild the plant and fuel to run it, leaving the people of Gaza with severe power shortages of up to 12 hours a day!

* Tying aid with plenty of strings: While most representatives expressed a desire to cut all funds to the PA, the witnesses cautioned them–not for humanitarian reasons but for Israel’s interests. The PA security forces have been cooperating with the Israelis on everything from stopping attacks on Israelis to repressing demonstrations. David Makovsky from the Washington Institute speculated that cutting off funds to the PA security forces would only hurt Israel. Jonathan Schanzer said that cutting off the PA could lead to an “intrafada” in which Hamas could emerge even stronger. He stated that money is the U.S. leverage to control the PA. “If we cut the funds, we lose our leverage and open the door for Iran and other anti-Israel actors.”

* Eviscerating the UN: The United States claims that it will veto the Palestinian statehood bid because the peace talks should take place between the two parties directly and not through an outside entity—in this case, the UN. Many of the reps could not contain their distain for the UN. “The UN would vote for any resolution that is anti-Israel,” said Cong. Poe in disgust, even if it said that the world is flat. They suggested defunding any UN organization that endorses Palestinian statehood. Some went even further, suggesting we cut off aid to any country that endorses statehood! Hungry Haitians or Ethiopians will simply have to pay the price. There is no such thing as “going too far” when it comes to standing up for Israel!

* Sheer stupidity:
One thing the representatives just couldn’t understand is that if we are giving the Palestinians so much money, how come they don’t like us? “Anti-Americanism among the Palestinians is only second to anti-Israel invective,” said witness Jonathan Schanzer, to the nods of the representatives. Rohrbacher seemed incredulous that we’ve given the Palestinians all this money, and it hasn’t even bought us goodwill. Duh! Of course the Palestinians don’t like us—we are supplying billions of dollars of weapons to their oppressors!

The stranglehold AIPAC has over Congress is putting our nation on a collision course with history. The vast majority of the world’s nations support the Palestinian bid for statehood (120 of them already recognize the state of Palestine). The democratic movements sweeping the Arab world are clamoring for Palestinian rights. Unconditional U.S. support for Israel keeps the region in turmoil, pits us against world opinion and jeopardizes our national security. It’s time for Congress to take off the AIPAC blinders.

– Medea Benjamin and Allison McCracken

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the human rights group Global Exchange and the peace group CODEPINK. Allison McCracken is the DC Coordinator of CODEPINK.

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