Two members of the US House of Representatives, Peter Welch of Vermont and David Price of North Carolina, sent a letter Thursday to Donald Trump expressing concern over the president’s freeze on “vital US contributions” to UNRWA, the UN agency that provides basic humanitarian services to more than five million Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The letter additionally backs “bilateral assistance” to the Palestinians, though in fact funds given to the Palestinian Authority are used disproportionately on internal suppression in collaboration with Israel.
Even protests against Israeli occupation and Israel’s deadly assaults on Gaza are frequently deemed unacceptable by the PA.
Welch and Price were joined by 100 other Democrats in the House.
There was not a single Republican signer in the group. More than half of all 193 Democrats in the House co-signed the letter, though only nine out of 21 – two fifths – of Democrats on the important foreign affairs committee added their names.
Eliot Engel, the ranking minority member on the committee and a staunch pro-Israel Democrat, did not join.
The Democratic Party mustered an even lower percentage of signers from the Middle East and North Africa subcommittee. Just three out of nine Democrats there signed the letter and ranking member Ted Deutch of Florida was not one of them.
Democrats representing the party on foreign policy matters are too often PEP – progressive except on Palestine – or outright conservative when it comes to service on relevant committees.
Another notable absence is House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
The letter itself is a mixed bag. Humanitarian support to ensure that the health, food, and education needs of Palestinian refugees are met is crucial.
Further aid to prop up a corrupt and non-democratic PA that is suppressing its own population is clearly far more problematic.
Democrats, including those who did not sign, are anxious to ensure that the PA continues its cooperation with Israel – which helps maintain a status quo of military occupation that has deprived millions of people of their basic rights for decades.
It is striking that support for the PA and its cooperation with Israel did not bring on board a single Republican and nearly half the Democrats. These members care even less for Palestinian refugees.
Who are the extremists?
The limits of the debate in Washington mean that discussion of Israel’s intentions and ongoing domination of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is largely off the table.
Consider, for example, this tweet about the letter from Welch, whose intention to alleviate the pain the Trump administration is inflicting on Palestinian refugees is surely good:
He writes of the necessity to urge Trump to “continue vital UNRWA assistance for five million Palestinian refugees” and that “instead of further entrenching the region in extremism, point these individuals towards peace and stability.”
I get it. This is the “inside the Beltway” reality where up is down. There, the extremism is all on the side of the occupied, the dispossessed, the most disempowered, and not on the side of the occupier, whose overwhelming violence has led to their plight.
Aaron Maté, a host and producer with The Real News, calls out Welch on the flipped reality, tweeting in response that, “it’s the extremism of a US-backed Israeli occupation that blocks peace and stability.”
Welch and other Democrats need to move off the “peace paradigm” and begin to consider the Palestinian freedom paradigm.
Through Israel’s eyes
With Israel increasingly setting its sights on annexing the West Bank, we are no longer in a two-state framework, but one in which Palestinians are struggling for equal rights within a crushing system that violently robs them of any real control over their political, economic and social lives, and where they are routinely maimed and killed with impunity.
Unsurprisingly, there’s not a word in the letter about Israeli occupation or the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they were forced out of in 1948.
Israel’s long-running oppression of Palestinians simply isn’t addressed though the signers tout “robust and expanding US aid to Israel.”
They even resort to quoting Peter Lerner, a former Israeli military spokesperson, making the case that withdrawing support for UNRWA “will not contribute to security or stability in the region.”
Lerner may well be right about UNRWA cuts being destabilizing, but the choice of a professional defender of Israeli war crimes to make a progressive case is an affront to those who know the regional situation as well as Lerner’s history, particularly when there is not even an acknowledgment of the horrors Lerner has defended over the years.
It is a confirmation that even what is good for Palestinians is only deemed so in Washington if it is first and foremost good for Israel.
Yet the sad reality is that these signers generally are the progressives in the House. Those who wouldn’t even sign on to this watered down letter largely hold even crueler positions.
Still it is positive that more than 100 members of Congress stood up for support for refugees.
But they should be pushed to take bolder stances against Israeli violence, occupation and discrimination and get closer to where grassroots liberal Democrats now stand on these issues.