Bernie Sanders Initiates Congressional Letter Urging Trump to Change Gaza Policy In Light of Protests

The senator writes that Gaza's 'lack of power' and other humanitarian basics 'exacerbates' tensions - and gives Hamas excuse to 'incite violence against Israel'

Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks on a question during a town hall in Jackson, Mississippi on April 4, 2018.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

WASHINGTON - Senator Bernie Sanders is circulating a letter among members of Congress urging the Trump administration to take steps to improve the humanitarian and economic conditions in Gaza in light of the recent violence on the Israel-Gaza border.

The letter, which could be sent to the U.S. State Department as early as next week, comes as a growing number of Democratic lawmakers in Washington, including Sanders, are criticizing Israel's response to the protests.

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Since the "March of Return" protests on the Israel-Gaza border began two weeks ago, 34 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire.

The letter, which began circulating Friday, states that Gaza's "lack of power, clean water, adequate medical care and other necessities not only exacerbates the hardships faced by Gaza’s population, but redounds to the benefit of extremist groups who use this deprivation and despair to incite violence against Israel."

It also quotes a UN report published in 2012 that estimated that, "if current trends continued, Gaza would become unlivable," and a subsequent report from last year that said, "that day might have already come... water pollution is among the factors causing a dramatic increase in kidney problems among Gaza’s population." 

The letter mentions  an assessment made earlier this year by senior IDF officers who warned that "the humanitarian crisis increases the chances of incidents at the border fence that can turn deadly," such as the events of the past two weeks. It further says that "Israeli security officials also believe conditions in Gaza could worsen to the point of a total collapse of order in the territory, leading to all-out confrontation between and among various Gazan factions and Israel." 

The letter, crafted by Sanders, partially blames Hamas for the situation in Gaza, "due to its ongoing repression, corruption and insistence on pursuing a violent struggle against Israel." It also states, however, that despite Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, "its continuing control of Gaza’s air, sea, and northern, southern, and eastern borders, and its restrictions on the freedom of movement of people, legitimate goods and equipment in and out of Gaza, have made the humanitarian situation worse." 

On a policy level, Sanders' letter reccomands that in order to avoid further conflict and to improve the conditions in the Strip, the United States sould, as a first step, "restore its funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees."

The Trump administration decided earlier this year to significantly cut U.S. funding for UNRWA, the UN's agency for Palestinain refugees, a decision that could lead to further economic hardship in Gaza and the West Bank. Sanders also calls on the administration to encourage Israel and Egypt to "ease restrictions on the movement of people, goods and equipment" in Gaza.

Sanders believes that the United State should "put its weight" behind plans to build a new seaport in the enclave to "boost Gaza’s economy." 

Sanders ends the letter by stating that "for the sake of Israelis and Palestinians alike, the United States must act urgently to help relieve the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip."

Democratic aides on Capitol Hill told Haaretz that the letter is part of a growing interest among legislators in the situation in Gaza, as the violence on the border raises the threat of a new war between Israel and Hamas. 

On Thursday, five Democratic members of Congress published a joint statement calling on the Israeli miltiary "to exercise utmost restraint in the use of deadly force and to fully comply with international law" in its response to the Gaza protest. The five, Mark Pocan from Wisconsin, Parmila Jayapal from Washington, Keith Ellison from Minnesota, Barbara Lee from California and Henry Johnson from Georgia, also called on the demonstrators in Gaza "to carry out their right to assembly nonviolently." 

The members wrote: “we strongly reject the dangerous contention made on April 8 by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman that ‘there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip.'" 

In addition, they wrote that they "applaud" Israeli human rights groups for "urging IDF forces to fully comply with international law and exercise utmost restraint in their use of deadly force. Such measures must only be used as a last resort to stop an imminent threat to life.”

Earlier this week, Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, a potential presidential contender in 2020, also spoke out on the situation in Gaza, telling the website The Intercept that she was "deeply concerned about the deaths and injuries in Gaza" and that "the Israel Defense Forces should exercise restraint and respect the rights of Palestinians to peacefully protest.”