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(photo credit: AP)
On the day we arrived in Washington D.C. - representatives of Israeli human rights organizations in town to brief decision-makers on the situation in Gaza - three simultaneous events were taking place: 1) readers of The Washington Post were waking up to a front page story describing the discovery of four small Gazan children stranded for days next to their dead mothers, prompting an unprecedented statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross that in this instance the IDF failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law; 2) the Red Cross and UNRWA were debating the halt of services in Gaza following several incidents in which their workers were attacked presumably by the IDF; and 3) the US House and Senate were expected to near-unanimously pass a resolution declaring their unwavering support for Israel and its military action in the Gaza Strip.
More than 100 individuals packed into room 2200 of the Rayburn House Office Building to hear from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and Gisha - Legal Center for Freedom of Movement about the devastating impact of the military operation and 18 months of closure of the Gaza Strip. Perhaps they were also there to somehow understand how the three parallel events noted above could possibly be taking place all at once.
How could it be that the ICRC was breaking its code of neutrality in a rare, historic moment to raise the specter of war crimes charges, while the US was calling for public support of a just war? How was it that UNRWA, for the first time in its 61 years of operation, was thinking of stopping its work following, among other things, the deaths of 43 civilians in one of its shelters, as American leaders were praising Israel's "self-defense" in the Gaza Strip?
ISRAELI HUMAN rights organizations, including PHR-Israel and Gisha, have been attempting to engage American audiences on issues affecting the population in Gaza for some time, and fervently so ever since the closure of Gaza's borders in June 2007. We were accustomed to being received tepidly at best, with audiences disputing our messages when they weren't yawning at them, and journalists rejecting our stories when they weren't ignoring them outright. Gaza had become too complicated. Any statements made in support of civilians there were turned into support for Hamas, a vote for terror, a denunciation of Israel. What we found in Washington just a few days ago, in the House, Senate and State Department was quite a different story.
We came to Washington last week on 10 hours notice - disheartened, tired, exasperated - after weeks of exhausting all resources, human and otherwise, to change the fate of Gaza's residents, and our own country. We came with a clear message - the "humanitarian crisis" which AIPAC and the Foreign Ministry are playing down, occurred long ago and was only becoming worse with the recent military operation. We came with suggestions for practical and urgent steps which could be taken to alleviate the crisis - including unimpeded access for the wounded to hospitals in the region, better and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid, including fuel, for Gaza's civilians and its collapsing civilian infrastructure.
The message we wanted to convey most loudly was that it should be okay to criticize the actions of your best friend and ally without being perceived as "anti-Israel" or "anti-Semitic," and that now, if ever, is the time to be courageous, vocal and risk that your criticism will be attacked rather than remain silent in the face of events which may turn out to be morally questionable.
It turns out, Gaza is not as complicated as it seems. People in the American government understand that civilians in Gaza, like civilians in Southern Israel, are caught in the middle of a violent conflict and should not have to pay the price for the illegal, immoral and unwise decisions of their leaders. Some of them even embraced this message and took action. Congresswoman Lois Capps held a briefing in her office with six other members of Congress and subsequently sent a letter to President George Bush with 24 signatures on it.
As Israeli Jews living in Israel, we came to Washington to let US decision-makers know that we are concerned about military operations supposedly taking place in our name and that America, as Israel's true friend, should be concerned as well. When the three of us decided to make the trip to Washington, we were quite sure that we were alone in this call. After three days, we were heartened to discover that we were in fact not alone at all.
Tania Hary is director of international relations for Gisha - Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement; Ran Yaron is director of the occupied territories department of Physicians for Human Rights - Israel; and Libby Friedlander is a nonprofit consultant based in Tel Aviv.
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