During Mideast Trips, Members of Congress Visit Gaza, East Jerusalem
By Julie Schumacher Cohen, Legislative Director
Over the President's Day break last week, several Members of Congress headed to the Middle East. Detailed below are highlights from some of these trips, including stops in Israel and the Palestinian territories and most notably in Gaza, by Representatives Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Brian Baird (D-WA) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Christian leaders and institutions in East Jerusalem, including Anglican Bishop Suheil Dawani and the Augusta Victoria Hospital run by the Lutheran World Federation, also received a number of visits by U.S. officials.
Churches for Middle East Peace has long been urging Representatives and Senators and their staff to visit both Israel and the Palestinian territories and to meet with the Palestinian Christian community. These recent trips reflect a welcome and growing recognition in Congress of the need to understand and address the needs of both Israelis and Palestinians in order to achieve a just and lasting resolution of the conflict.
Join CMEP in sending a note of thanks for these important Congressional visits to the Holy Land by visiting http://www.cmep.org/Alerts/2009Feb23.htm
Gaza Receives First U.S. Government Visitors in More Than Three Years
Since the election of Hamas, Gaza has not only seen a reduction in the steady flow of goods and materials, but the closure of Gaza's borders has also meant fewer visitors to the narrow Strip. A CMEP delegation in early December 2008 was unable to obtain permission from Israeli authorities to enter, two Palestinian Christian Bishops were blocked entry in January, and U.S. government officials have not toured Gaza in more than three years.
However, Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim-American member of Congress and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all visited the struggling Gaza Strip, in coordination with the U.N., during trips last week to Israel and the Palestinian territories. All three Members of Congress also visited the Israeli town of Sderot which has suffered under a constant barrage of rocket fire in recent months and years.
According to press reports, Sen. Kerry's visit included touring a destroyed American-style school and a neighborhood where dozens of homes had been flattened. Kerry issued no formal statement but was quoted as saying that the trip was not an "indication of a change in policy. I am here to listen with the U.N. personnel on the ground to hear their assessment and to make personal judgment." However, given his leadership on foreign affairs in the Senate and his closeness to President Barack Obama, Kerry's visit received wide attention. One Israeli diplomat observed that while the Gaza visits may not indicate a different policy, they did signal a different attitude, reflecting Obama's philosophy that it is necessary to "go to different places and talk to many different people."
More Info: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1233304824765&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
The visit of Representatives Ellison and Baird, which unlike Sen. Kerry's did not have the official sanction of the Obama Administration, enabled the two Members, according to a joint statement, to "view first-hand the destruction from recent Israeli air and ground attacks, and to meet with international and local relief agencies." Both were deeply affected by what they saw and heard.
Rep. Baird said, "The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering?The personal stories of children being killed in their homes or schools; of entire families wiped out, and relief workers prevented from evacuating the wounded are heart wrenching. What went on here? And what is continuing to go on, is shocking and troubling beyond words."
Commenting on the current status of the flow of needed goods, Rep. Ellison said, "We are glad that President Obama acted quickly to send much needed humanitarian funding to Gaza for this effort. However, the arbitrary and unreasonable Israeli limitations on food, and repair and reconstruction materials are unacceptable and indefensible. People; innocent children, women and non-combatants, are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in."
Concluding their joint statement, Reps. Baird and Ellison emphasized that, "Just as the people of Gaza should not be subject to what they have experienced, the Israeli civilians should not have to live in fear of constant and indiscriminate rocketing." They urged the region and the international community to "recommit itself to making the difficult but necessary changes to bring about lasting and just peace, and security for the region" and cited President Obama's "important and encouraging initiatives" including the appointment of Special Middle East Envoy Senator George Mitchell who they said, "will undoubtedly listen long to the aggrieved parties and then give advice accordingly." To view the full statement, visit http://www.house.gov/list/press/wa03_baird/morenews1/GazaTrip.shtml
In East Jerusalem, U.S. Officials Meet with Palestinian Christian Leader, Visit Christian Institution
Prior to their historic visit to Gaza, Representatives Keith Ellison and Brian Baird also spent time in East Jerusalem, meeting with the Right Revered Dr. Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, who was denied entry to Gaza just a couple of weeks ago when attempting to make a pastoral visit there. Bishop Dawani had invited the two Members to visit him at St. George's Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem when he met them at the "2009 U.S. Islamic World Forum ? Common Challenges" in Doha, Qatar. According to a press release, "Bishop Dawani briefed the two Congressmen on the work and mission of the Diocese and its active involvement in Ecumenical and interfaith endeavors."
Press Release: http://www.j-diocese.org/newsdetail.php?id=3397
Ellison and Baird also visited the Augusta Victoria Hospital (AVH), run by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and located on the Mount of Olives. According to a report by the LWF Regional Representative, the Rev. Mark Brown and the Chief Executive Officer of AVH, Dr. Tawfiq Nasser, the hospital received in the span of one week three visits from U.S. officials and friends in cooperation with the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. The visits are a testament to the significant work being done by the hospital and the unique role it plays as part of the East Jerusalem Hospital Network and the Palestinian health system at large.
Reps. Ellison and Baird toured the partially opened new Specialized Center for Child Care and met with patients from Gaza who gave their first-hand testimony as to the worsening medical conditions of their children and the extreme difficulties they are facing in accessing the unique services at AVH. They also received an update on the access situation facing all East Jerusalem Hospitals. In their joint statement, the two Members noted their visit of Palestinian hospitals and meetings "with doctors, nurses and hospital directors who described how official Israeli policies restrict border checkpoints which make it exceedingly difficult and expensive for patients, nurses, medical technicians, and other essential personnel to reach the hospital to receive or provide care."
Other visitors to the hospital included Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) as well as Ms. Hadassah Lieberman (wife of Senator Lieberman I-CT) accompanied by Ms. Leslie Genier, wife of the US Ambassador to Israel, Mr. James B. Cunningham. Holt toured the Specialized Center for Child Care; Hadassah Leiberman and Genier toured the cancer center for adults and children and were briefed on the cancer situation in the Palestinian population.
CMEP has sent thank you letters to Reps. Ellison, Baird, Holt and Sen. Kerry for witnessing firsthand the struggles of both Israelis and Palestinians during their recent trips to the Holy Land. CMEP is requesting meetings with each to express in person the church coalition's appreciation.
Please take a moment to add your thanks. View the CMEP thank you letters and find email contact information at http://www.cmep.org/Alerts/2009Feb23.htm