'Israel must change "counterproductive" Gaza policies'

Visiting US congressmen call on Israel to end the economic isolation of Gaza and to open the crossing.

By
February 22, 2009 00:25
'Israel must change "counterproductive" Gaza policies'

Ellison baird congressmen gaza 248.88 ap. (photo credit: AP)

 
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Banning lentils and pasta from Gaza does not help the cause of peace, two visiting congressmen told The Jerusalem Post on Friday morning, after making a rare visit to Gaza the previous day. "When have lentil bombs been going off lately? Is someone going to kill you with a piece of macaroni?" asked Rep. Brian Baird (D-Washington). He and Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) called on Israel to end the economic isolation of Gaza and to open the crossings into the area, which have been closed since Hamas's coup there in June 2007. Their call came two days after the cabinet agreed to link the full opening of the crossings to the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, who has been held in Gaza since June 2006. Ellison said he had taken the efforts to free Schalit to heart and had a copy of his dog tags in his office. "I have met with his family and prayed for his release. But you know he is not going to get out any faster by inflicting pain and punishment on 1.5 million Palestinians [in Gaza]. It is not going to happen that way," he said. Israel's policy toward Gaza "is not designed for success or to win the release of Gilad Schalit." The congressmen visited Gaza Thursday, the same day as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who made a separate visit. Both marked the first time in over five years, since the 2003 killing of three US security contractors, that American politicians had entered the Strip. "We are not emissaries for the Obama administration," Baird said. "Keith and I are simply two American citizens, members of the US Congress, who wanted to understand the situation and to see what can be done to help." They did not meet with any members of Hamas while in Gaza, he said. "It was strictly a humanitarian visit." The two men described themselves as supporters of Israel. They said they were struck both by the destruction Israel had leveled in Gaza during its recent 22-day military operation, as well as the harmed caused by the closure of the crossings to all but basic humanitarian aid. The ban on lentils and pasta was symbolic of a policy that was "idiosyncratic and arbitrary. You look stupid and petty and over-controlling when you this," Baird said. This kind of action only fostered extremism, he said. Maj. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the IDF Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, told the Post that lentils and pasta would be allowed into Gaza as of Sunday. Some 100,000 tons of supplies had been allowed into Gaza since the end of Operation Cast Lead, but the list of items deemed to be essential had not included lentils and pasta, he said. Baird told the Post already on Friday that even if the IDF changed its stance on those two items, the issue was much larger. "Let's not get hung upon lentils and macaroni," he said. The crossings needed to be open to provide Gaza with more aid, traffic of people and the construction material and other goods necessary to the economy. Baird said. "It is not just bringing in material, it is building up the domestic capacity so people can have real jobs and make their own things," he said. The two men spoke in advance of their visit to Sderot later on Friday to see the damage caused to the people who live in the western Negev, who have endured eight years of rocket attacks from Gaza. Israel's policy toward Gaza was not helping stop the rockets, Baird said. "What you are doing now is going to create more rockets in the long run," he said. Ellison added, "When people have been deprived and feel beat down long enough, you cannot make them do what you want by beating on them more. They are used to that. They know that. They have been without and they can be without," he said. "The children [in Gaza] did not abduct that soldier, neither can they release that soldier, and neither can children stop a rocket from going off," Baird said. As Americans, they were acutely aware while in Gaza that the IDF had used American-made weapons to attack the Palestinians, they said. Ellison, who is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, recalled how they had walked on a road where a number of the homes had been flattened by the IDF. "We came upon a temporary shelter, it was just cinder blocks that were set up in an eight by 10 square, and they had some kind of a tarp and a sheet over it to stop the rain. They were making tea and we walked up and said, 'Salaam aleikum," Ellison said. The people in the shelter welcomed them and made them tea. "We asked them how are you coping with all of this, and they talked to us," he said. "They told us their stories. I will admit and I was a little reluctant to say that I was an American congressmen. Quite frankly, it might have been the IDF launching the bombs, but they all said made in America." Still, "no treated us with anything but the greatest respect and kindness," Ellison said. Baird said he was particularly troubled by the "apparent targeting" of hospitals, schools and relief centers. It would be a "remarkable coincidence if the rounds accidentally fell" on those institutions, he said. As a licensed neuropsychologist and the father of twin four-year-old boys, he was particularly struck by the remains of what had been a play area for children in a treatment center at Al-Quds Hospital, which had Disney characters painted on the walls. "It is very disconcerting to say the least," he said. Similarly, he said, it was upsetting to see that an American school had also been bombed, "of all the iconic things you could destroy," he said. The bombing had not only killed people, but also "an institution that taught core American values like tolerance," Baird said. At the school, he found a little book on baseball with a question the teacher had asked about legendary first baseman Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in the major leagues. "They are trying to teach Israel about tolerance using baseball, for goodness sakes, and that is now destroyed," Baird said. What struck Ellison is that "Gaza is like the land of kids, statistically. Fifty-six percent of the people are under 18. Wherever you go there are these little guys running around. And they know Barak Obama. They are hopeful about Barak Obama. They say his name and a smile breaks across their face." The two men said they had also traveled to the West Bank, where they met with Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, and spoke with people about Israeli travel restrictions and closures in the territories. Baird and Ellison said they heard from doctors, medical technicians and patients about how difficult it was to move around. "When you are making a child undergoing chemotherapy and his mother and father stand in line for hours to try to get to a hospital, you are not creating friends, you are not improving security, you are creating rage," Baird said. As a father, he could only imagine how he would feel in that situation, he said. What was needed here, both he and Ellison said, was for all sides to take some courageous stands. "Israel has legitimate security concerns, but we have to find a way [to make a change]. We all have to run some risks here. And that means the US, too," Ellison said.

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