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WASHINGTON - Fifty-four members of the U.S. Congress have signed a letter asking President Barack Obama to put pressure on Israel to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

The letter was the initiative of Representatives Jim McDermott from Washington and Keith Ellison from Minnesota, both of whom are Democrats. Ellison is the first Muslim congressman.

McDermott and Ellison wrote that they understand the threats facing Israel and the ongoing Hamas terror activities against Israeli citizens but that "this concern must be addressed without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip."

"We ask you to press for immediate relief for the citizens of Gaza as an urgent component of your broader Middle East peace efforts," they wrote, adding that the blockade has hampered the ability of aid agencies to do their work in Gaza.

The congressmen urged Obama to pressure Israel to ease the movement of people in and out of Gaza, especially students, the sick, aid workers, journalists and those with family concerns, and also to allow the import of building materials to rebuild houses.

Israel has warned that such materials would be used to restore Hamas infrastructure and not civilian homes.

Ellison has harshly criticized the House of Representatives decision to reject the Goldstone report, arguing that the report "only presents facts and raises recommendations for the future." He cast doubt that members of Congress who voted to reject the report even took the time to read it and that the rejection hurt the Obama government's role as an honest broker in the Middle East conflict.

In addition to members of Congress, several leftist organizations also signed the letter, including Americans for Peace Now and J Street.

"The Israeli position is that the Hamas government in Gaza does not meet the conditions set forth by the international community and the Quartet," the Israeli Embassy in Washington responded. "And as long as Hamas continues to attack Israel with missiles and other means, Israel will not open the border crossings. With this, Israel is doing everything possible to ensure that humanitarian aid enters Gaza in a controlled manner so that it is ensured that the population receives what it needs, including medical care in Israel. But Israel will not allow a neighbor that calls for its destruction to enjoy the benefits of an open border."

Another letter signed by 33 members of Congress was sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to raise the issue of students from Gaza who are having difficulty studying at universities in the West Bank due to the lack of free passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

"Ensuring that students from Gaza have access to higher education in the West Bank promotes U.S. foreign policy interests by investing in the future of the region," the letter states.

The State Department responded, "Education is a fundamental right and a force for moderation. The secretary responds to all Congressional correspondence as appropriate."