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CQ TODAY: "House Leaders To Draft Resolution Addressing Gaza Strip Conflict"

Americans for Peace Now urged some 10,000 of its supporters to contact members with the message that, while Israel has a right to defend itself, it risks endangering its security through this action,...

Jan. 5, 2009

By John M. Donnelly, CQ Staff

House Foreign Affairs Committee leaders will draft a resolution addressing the conflict in the Gaza Strip, the House Majority Leader told reporters Monday.

Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said the resolution "would not demand a cease-fire, but will address the conditions needed for a cease-fire."

Spokespersons for Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., and ranking Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida were unable to comment on the status of any resolution. But a knowledgeable House aide said no decision has been made to file one, let alone on what it would say. It also is unclear where the Senate stands in its deliberations on potential Gaza-related legislation.

Even before the debate begins, though, advocacy groups with various viewpoints on the war in Gaza have barraged Congress with petitions and messages that are intended to prepare the political battlefield. For the most part, lawmakers have expressed unqualified support of Israel's incursion into Gaza, which began 11 days ago. The war has resulted in more than 550 Palestinian deaths - including about 200 civilians -and about 2,500 injuries in Gaza, according to reports Monday from U.N. and Gaza health officials. Five Israelis reportedly have died in the conflict, which began Dec. 27 after Hamas broke a six-month truce by firing rockets into Israel.

Hoyer reflected the prevailing congressional sentiment when he said he respects Israel's right to defend itself.

"If the American public can imagine Mexico launching missiles into Texas or Mexico saying they really ought to be ours, you can imagine the American response," he said.

The petitions and messaging campaigns on Gaza have given voice to thousands. One of the most formidable lobbying organizations on Israeli issues is the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. The group has posted a form message on its web site that enables supporters to urge members "to issue a statement in support of Israel's right to defend its citizens from terrorism." So far, AIPAC has collected some 89 congressional statements and press releases on the conflict, all but a handful of which back Israel's action.

Other groups on the right have launched similar campaigns, including the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Israel Project.

Meanwhile, more to the left of the political spectrum, other groups are weighing in. They spend less energy affirming Israel's right to fight than they do discussing the underlying problems between Palestinians and Israelis.

For example, a lobbying and political fund-raising group created last spring called J Street has collected at least 22,000 signatures on an on-line petition that supports "immediate and strong U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to urgently reinstate a meaningful cease-fire that ends all military operations, stops the rockets aimed at Israel and lifts the blockade of Gaza."

In a statement, J Street says it does not believe "the continuation of the present military operation is in the best interests of either the United States or Israel," and adds: "Demonstrations throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world indicate that this week's events are only further damaging America's image, interests and relationships around the world."

In a similar vein, Americans for Peace Now urged some 10,000 of its supporters to contact members with the message that, while Israel has a right to defend itself, it risks endangering its security through this action, by "playing into the hands of extremists," potentially bogging down Israeli troops in Gaza or threatening another war with Hezbollah from Lebanon. It called for a cease-fire that includes improvements in the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the "re-emergence of a serious, productive political process."

U.S. Muslims also are making themselves heard. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil-rights and advocacy group, is aiming to collect 1 million signatures on an online petition that urges U.S. leaders to speak "in favor of peace and justice for all parties involved in the current humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Gaza Strip."

The group maintains that U.S. policies have been unbalanced in support of Israel, fueling anti-American sentiment in the region and harming peace prospects. Any congressional resolution should fix that imbalance, according to Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the council.

"If Congress deals with this issue, they need to adopt an even-handed approach that recognizes the rights and responsibilities of all parties in the region, not just Israel's rights," Hooper said.

Most members of Congress, though, issued statements that spoke only of Israel's right to respond to Hamas's provocations.

"I think what the Israelis are doing is very important," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on NBC's Meet the Press on Jan. 4 "I think this terrorist organization, Hamas, has got to be put away. They've got to come to their senses."

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, struck the same note on the same day on ABC's This Week: "I think the Israelis are doing the only thing they can possibly do to defend their population."

There have been a few notes of criticism of Israel from lawmakers, including Democrat Keith Ellison of Minnesota.

"If we try to resolve conflict with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before," Ellison said in a statement.

Edward Epstein contributed to this story.