With extremism gaining adherents in both communities, the notion that Muslims and Jews can work together for a similar vision of peace between Palestinians and Israelis may surprise many. The idea certainly piqued the interest of U.S. Congressional staff members who were invited to participate in the first joint American Jewish-Muslim staff delegation to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, sponsored by American Muslims for Jerusalem (AMJ) and Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (JPPI).
The bi-partisan delegation intended to spend six days traveling throughout Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, American and international humanitarian organizations, and U.S. government officials. Staffers acknowledged this as a unique opportunity to get a balanced view of the situation on the ground. This, they said, could only help in the development of a constructive American policy toward the region and peacemaking efforts there.
Perhaps more surprising than the group’s sponsorship was the fact that Israel’s Interior Ministry denied entry to the delegation, which attempted to enter the Israeli-occupied West Bank from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge on August 8. After five hours and without explanation, Israeli security personnel informed the delegation that the Ministry of Interior had refused entry to the six Congressional staffers and the two AMJ staff members. While Israeli authorities held the passports of all nine members of the delegation, an Israeli policeman urged the group to get their passports and leave, saying he hoped the situation would not lead to “blows.”
Since April, Israel has turned away or expelled hundreds of humanitarian relief workers, peace delegations, and journalists, not to mention the U.S.-sanctioned UN fact-finding mission established to investigate the Israeli invasion of Jenin. An official staff delegation from the U.S. Congress, however, is a new addition to Israel’s list of undesirables.
Six Members of Congress — the institution that appropriates to Israel $3 billion of U.S. taxpayer money every year–sent their staffers on this delegation to help inform their positions on this critical issue. Instead, they were sent on their way with “denied entry” scrawled in red in their American passports. Only after three days of high level intervention from the U.S. State Department and Embassy in Tel Aviv were the staffers finally allowed entry–though without their American Muslim hosts. Israel managed to compress what was to have been a six-day fact-finding mission into little more than two days. Such strange behavior on the part of America’s purported ally in the region should prompt members of Congress to ask: what is Israel trying to hide?
Despite the abridged schedule of the delegation, once on the ground, it became obvious what Israel was attempting to hide: an onslaught against the Palestinian people designed to subjugate them to Israel’s indefinite military occupation. In the West Bank, the juxtaposition of destruction and construction was terrifyingly staggering. On dozens of hilltops, there was evidence of brand new settlements being established in defiance of U.S. outcries to halt this illegal practice. Israeli bulldozers worked feverishly to clear land and build new settler-only bypass roads to facilitate the movement of settlers while further choking off already constricted Palestinian Bantustans. The Israeli checkpoints leading in to Ramallah and Bethlehem have been, literally, concretized, perhaps permanently severing these cities from Palestinian East Jerusalem. At the same time, according to figures cited by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Israel has completely destroyed at least 1,600 Palestinian homes since September 2000, leaving many thousands homeless.
Israel’s desperate attempt to entrench its military occupation, which everyone agrees must come to an end in order for there to be a just peace, has wreaked incalculable damage to Palestinian infrastructure and society. USAID reports skyrocketing malnutrition among Palestinian children and 70% of Palestinians living below the poverty line. In the Aida refugee camp, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the delegation saw the meager belongings of one refugee utterly ransacked and his house partially destroyed by Israeli troops who reoccupied the area during a spring invasion. Endless coils of barbed wire, which have proliferated at nearly every turn, imprison Palestinians in their own homeland. In Hebron, Hebrew graffiti repeatedly urges the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank with such vile slogans as “Death to the Arabs” and “No Arabs, No Attacks.” No wonder that Israel attempted to keep this delegation out.
Members of Congress would be wise to visit the Palestinian Occupied Territories to see this for themselves. At the very least, they should listen to what Palestinians told the delegation about their feelings toward the United States. Although the tone varied, the message was the same: the United States’ unconditional military and diplomatic support for Israel’s occupation and its brutal policies are embittering Palestinians toward the U.S. government. If our government is truly interested in improving its image worldwide, then it must change substantively those policies which are so offensive to those seeking peace and justice.