Why doesn't Congress call for a Mideast ceasefire?

There are rumors of a ceasefire, but the Gaza crisis continues. Members of Congress have been all over the airwaves as the violence escalates.  According to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.), “The State of Israel is under siege on multiple fronts…There is no moral equivalency between the self-defense actions of Israel and the barbaric actions of Hamas.” Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.) said that “Israel has a right to self-defense in the face of indiscriminate violence and vicious attacks against civilian populations.”

His Democratic partner Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) is clear that “Israel is entitled to take the steps necessary to protect itself from destructive rocket attacks from Hamas, that are aimed at all Israeli civilians.”  And Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) reminded everyone that “Israel is our closest and most reliable ally in the Middle East, and we stand with Israel and their right to defend themselves against terrorist organizations that deliberately target civilians.”  All are part of a bigger bi-partisan group proposing a resolution to “reaffirm the United States’ support for Israel’s right to defend its citizens” and “ensure the survival” of the Israeli state.

A very, very few, led by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), have reflected the international call for both sides to implement what’s obviously needed – an immediate ceasefire.  

The problem for Congress is that its enthusiasm for Israel’s disproportionate military assaults is simply out of touch with mainstream American opinion. In the current Gaza crisis, the vast disparity of casualties, with at least 176 Palestinians killed, 70 percent of whom were civilians and half were women and children, while luckily no Israelis have been killed, provides perhaps the best indicator of who is paying the price. These statistics illustrate why claims that Israel’s bombing raids are carefully aimed against Hamas military targets and are carefully designed to limit civilian casualties are simply not true.  And more and more people in the U.S., not to mention the rest of the world, are starting to understand that.

There is no question that firing rockets randomly against Israel is a clear violation of international law, and must immediately be stopped. Ironically, Israel probably knows better than any outside governments how best to protect its people from the fear of those primitive rockets: by a genuine ceasefire. This isn’t the first time a massive and lethal Israeli air campaign was launched against Gaza, and not the first time rockets were fired from Gaza.  But when ceasefires have been in place, they protect lives – Israeli lives even more than Palestinian lives (because even during ceasefires Palestinians are killed with disturbing regularity). During 2013 and 2014 – during the ceasefire that ended Israel’s eight-day attack on Gaza in November 2012 – no Israelis were killed by rocket fire.  If Israel were seriously trying to protect its population, it would have called for an immediate ceasefire long before now. 

But Congress, with a few brave exceptions, refuses to call for a ceasefire. And Congress bears some direct responsibility, too, for the deaths in Gaza and for any further casualties on either side.  That’s because Congressionally-mandated unconditional military aid to Israel, amounting to about $3.1billion of our tax dollars every year, and Congressionally-demanded unconditional U.S. protection of Israel in the United Nations so that the Israeli government is never held accountable for its collective punishment of Palestinians and other violations of international law, serve to enable those violations.

Many in Congress are claiming that the illegal Hamas rockets were “unprovoked” and that Israel is only “responding.” They describe the crisis starting with the terrible kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teenagers.  But we all know that history is shaped by when you start the clock.  On May 15, four weeks before the three Israelis were killed, two Palestinian teenagers were killed by Israeli troops firing live ammunition. Human Rights Watch termed it an “apparent war crime.”  But do their deaths justify the killing of the three Israeli teens?  Of course not. But one must ask, when do we start the clock?   With the horrific revenge killing of the young Palestinian who was burned to death by Israeli terrorists? During the days of searching for the Israeli teenagers, five Palestinians were killed, more than 500 arrested, and scores of homes destroyed by the Israeli military.  On June 20 Israel launched a series of airstrikes across the Gaza Strip, with six Palestinians injured.  When do we start the clock?

Americans and people around the world are urging an immediate ceasefire. Petitions are demanding support for an immediate ceasefire. Leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace, with 150,000 supporters and chapters in cities and college campuses across the country, are reminding us that “As we mourn all who have died, we also reaffirm that all Israelis and Palestinians deserve security, justice, and equality. To end violence - and truly mourn its victims - we must acknowledge, and challenge the root causes beneath it. The occupation, with US military and financial support, is the root cause.”

Congress must indeed act. But it should act with the understanding that so many Americans are now coming to: we need an immediate ceasefire from both sides right now. And then we need to stop enabling Israel’s military occupation with our billions in aid and our protection in the UN. All those who violate international law should be held accountable – including our allies and ourselves.

Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, and author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.