01.08.09

Statement On S. Res. 10 and the Situation in Gaza

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, S. Res. 10, the resolution that was adopted today reaffirming U.S. support for Israel, is factually accurate.  No one here doubts our commitment to Israel’s security, or Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks.  But the resolution, unfortunately, presents an incomplete response to the situation in Gaza.  With so much at stake for the United States, for Israel and for the world, we owe the American people and all concerned a clear-eyed, forthright and constructive discussion of such vital matters as these.

Hamas’ unilateral decision to break the ceasefire was deplorable.  It is clear that rather than work for peace, Hamas used the ceasefire to amass more powerful and longer range weapons.  Its actions should be universally condemned, and they will achieve nothing positive for the cause of the Palestinian people.  Those who have collaborated in supplying weapons that are being used to terrorize and harm innocent civilians in Israel are complicit in the suffering and destruction that has occurred on both sides.    

For its part, Israel used the ceasefire to pressure Hamas through a blockade that, in the absence of a long-term strategy, has caused extreme hardship for the Palestinian people collectively in Gaza but done nothing to change Hamas’ militant policies.  The blockade was not coupled with an effective strategy to address the underlying causes of the conflict.   

In the past 14 days, according to the United Nations, 758 Palestinians have died, including 257 children, as a result of Israel’s military operations, and thousands more have been injured.  Palestinian homes, schools and other civilian infrastructure have been demolished.  Among Israelis, 3 civilians have been killed, and 7 soldiers have died.  Israeli homes have also been badly damaged from Hamas rocket fire.  The UN Relief and Works Agency, which is the principal humanitarian organization functioning in Gaza, suspended its operations earlier today due to risks to the safety of its personnel as a result of Israeli attacks which killed two of its workers and injured one.

As has been said here repeatedly, Israel has the right to defend itself.  And I have no doubt that the Israeli Defense Forces, using powerful weapons supplied by the United States, can achieve tactical victories in Gaza by damaging Hamas’ military capabilities. 

But the right response is one that will, over the long term, make Israel more secure, and that will be achieved only when Israel is accepted by its neighbors.  Those of us who have long worked to support Israel should not lose sight of this crucial goal and this bigger picture.  This escalation will, I fear, have the opposite effect.  The widening use of force has implications for Israel’s long-term security that should concern each of us.  This approach may increase support among Palestinians for Hamas as well as anger and resentment toward Israel and the United States within Arab countries and around the world.

Israel seeks to deal a fatal blow to Hamas militants, to bomb them into submission and moderation.  If our country were attacked in a similar way by one of our neighbors we might respond the same way.  But there is little if any reason to believe these tactics can work.  This latest escalation, with bombs falling and tank artillery striking in heavily populated areas where civilians – more than half of whom are children – have no means of escape, obviously and tangibly is providing ammunition to extremists, inside and outside of Gaza.  And in doing so it increases the dangers to both soldiers and civilians – Israeli and Palestinian – and of miring Israel in an open-ended mission in Gaza resulting in far more destruction and loss of innocent life than we have seen so far.  Ultimately, extremism is what has hindered a political resolution that ends this conflict with two secure states living side by side.

There are some who may argue that the collapse of the recent ceasefire proves that Hamas will only respond to force.  Hamas has abused the ceasefire, but that is not the only lesson from the collapse.  Any clear-eyed analysis will show that a ceasefire cannot succeed – indeed, it will be exploited by Israel’s enemies – if it is treated as an end in itself instead of as an opportunity to materially improve the humanitarian situation and to undertake serious negotiations to end the conflict.   

There are broadly acknowledged immediate steps that must be taken:  put a meaningful ceasefire in place, stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, and open crossings into Gaza to facilitate the flow of licit goods and services. 

But beyond that, history has shown that absent an inclusive, diplomatic process that effectively addresses the core interests of both Israelis and Palestinians, the cycle of violence will continue.  Preconditions are an obstacle to that process in the Middle East as much as they were for another seemingly intractable conflict, in Northern Ireland. 

Others have asked these questions, which are worth repeating:  Does the Gaza war improve Israel’s long-term, or even short-term, security?  Was it realistic and in Israel’s long-term interests to expect Hamas to accept Israel in advance of negotiations, rather than push for a total cessation of the use of violence and blockade, followed by negotiations?  Was it realistic to expect the ceasefire to hold while Gaza remained under siege, rife with hunger, illness, joblessness, and hopelessness, and while construction of settlements continued, and even accelerated, in the West Bank?

On January 6th, Secretary of State Rice spoke to the UN Security Council.  I do not doubt the sincerity of her concern with the humanitarian situation in Gaza, or for the need for a ceasefire “that can endure and bring real security.”  We all want that.  But her words were noteworthy for what they said about the dismal failure of the Bush Administration’s approach to the Middle East conflict.  Eight years were squandered and mishandled, and President-elect Obama faces a far more difficult situation than his predecessor inherited. 

Mr. President, our credibility in the entire world has suffered immeasurably since 9/11.  In particular our image in predominantly Muslim countries has been affected by the failure to advance a credible strategy to help resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.  This has pronounced and obvious implications for our security, for Israel’s security, and for the entire Middle East region. 

At this time of great opportunity in America to change our policies and make a true contribution to peace in the Middle East, we should be careful when we adopt resolutions on subjects as sensitive as this to be cognizant of the history of the region and the complexities of the situation.  Above all, our goal should be to enhance our role as a force for peace and our ability to advance our Nation’s interests.

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