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Israeli Human Rights NGOs Welcomed on the Hill

Last week, representatives of two leading Israeli human rights organizations - Tania Hary from Gisha, and Ran Yaron from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel - made a last-minute, whirlwind trip to Washington.  Their goal was to try to convey to Congress and the Administration the gravity of the humanitarian situation on the ground, right now, in Gaza.  They were accompanied by Libby Friedlander, an indefatigable mover-and-shaker on the Israeli pro-peace NGO scene.

APN, which is not a human rights organization, does not usually handle this kind of visit.  But I was asked to help and given the enormity of the unfolding tragedy, the clear implications that it has on the hopes for ever achieving Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace, and the evident hunger for information here in Washington from within Congress and the Administration, I agreed to try.

With very little time to organize (they told me Tuesday afternoon that they would be arriving Thursday morning), I told them to keep their expectations low.  While I hoped that members of Congress and staff would be receptive to the visit, I feared that, with all the political jockeying going on over this issue, they might balk.  My fears did not materialize.  To the contrary.

On Thursday, I organized a public briefing for them in the Rayburn House Office Building.  Ever the optimist, I scheduled it in one of the larger rooms, but fearing a small turnout, we only set up about 60 chairs.  The event was jointly presented - and advertised - by a coalition of groups:  APN, J Street, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, Churches for Middle East Peace, the Arab American Institute, and B'tselem.  The result exceeded all expectations:  more than 100 people came - standing-room only with people sitting on the floor.  And at least 50% of the attendees were congressional staff, split almost evenly between the House and Senate.  Even one member of Congress came.

The event was amazing - as much for the tone as anything else.  The speakers - both young, eloquent, knowledgeable and extremely sympathetic - never engaged in polemics or Israel bashing.  Rather, they offered a quiet and effective description of the humanitarian problems in Gaza, including the impacts of the boycott/blockade/siege that preceded the current conflict, the immediate crisis on the ground in the context of the current fighting, and the some of the new challenges that will emerge once the fighting ends.  In what was one of the most powerful sound-bites of the event, Tania noted that she agreed with (link has expired) Secretary Rice that under any new ceasefire there must be no return to status quo ante - but where Secretary Rice meant this only in terms of rocket fire from Gaza, Tania made clear that it must mean both in terms of rocket fire into Israel and in terms of Israeli policies that, in an effort to hurt Hamas, hurt innocent civilians.  For any ceasefire to be sustainable there can be no return to "status quo ante" by either measure.

The event lasted an hour and half and most people stayed for the entire thing.  Many staffers stayed on after the event ended to talk to the speakers, and one senior staffer for a solidly pro-Israel member of Congress stopped to thank me for this "excellent" event.  (Hopefully we will have an audio file of the event - keep checking back for that).

In addition to the public event, the visitors met with State Department officials and at least one member of the press.  They were also were welcomed in private meetings with a total of 7 members of the House and Senate, as well as staff from 5 other offices (and a hat tip to Joel at J Street and Julie at Churches for Middle East Peace for their part in helping with the schedule).  This included a meeting with a group of House members (this meeting, and several others, included B'tselem's new Washington Representative, Mitchell Plitnick, who had just returned from an extended visit to Israel).  The almost immediate upshot of that meeting was a letter sent Friday (1/9/09) to President Bush, Secretary of State Rice, President-elect Obama, Senator Hillary Clinton and Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor.  The letter, led by Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and signed by 24 members of Congress, lays out detailed concerns about the humanitarian situation.  Coming on the same day that the House passed its resolution calling for a ceasefire and expressing concerns about the humanitarian situation (among other things), the letter offered an important, complementary message.  The letter, and the visit, have already resulted in an article in the Jewish press.   And there may still be a similar letter in the Senate -- stay tuned.

Overall, in the course of these meetings it became clear that across the board, most members and staff - including from offices that are not considered part of the traditional "peace caucus" in Congress - clearly "get it."  Most recognize that the current humanitarian situation is a disaster for civilians on both sides.  Most recognize that, however and whenever this military engagement ends, the needs of the people in Gaza simply cannot be wished away or ignored.  Most recognize that a situation in which the entire civilian population of Gaza is suffering cannot be conducive to peace and security for Israel.  Most recognize that blaming Hamas for the situation cannot be an excuse for policies that perpetuate and deepen the suffering of innocent civilians.  And most recognize that failing to address the immediate needs of civilians in the battle zone, now - like failing to set up and maintain humanitarian corridors to evacuate wounded and bring in fuel and other vital supplies, and failing to enable international agencies access and protection - is unconscionable and, in the end, counterproductive for Israel.

Finally, for up-to-the-minute (or as close as possible) updates on the situation in Gaza from Israeli NGOs, Israeli NGOs have cooperated to set up a one-stop website.