WASHINGTON – Rep. Mark Pocan, one of the most vocal supporters of Palestinian rights in Congress, called on the Israeli government on Wednesday to immediately allow U.S. lawmakers entry into the Gaza Strip.
The Wisconsin Democrat told a webinar for Americans for Peace Now, a nonprofit whose stated aim is to help find a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that he is particularly concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Strip. He described the coastal enclave as an “open-air prison,” and lamented the conditions he says are radicalizing Gazan residents.
Pocan decried both the general ignorance of the humanitarian crisis as well as the Israeli government for preventing U.S. lawmakers from entering Gaza. He said he is “almost obsessed” with the situation; in 2016, he, along with Reps. Hank Johnson and Dan Kildee, attempted to enter the Gaza Strip during a 2016 trip to Israel, but was denied access. The Israeli government did not give him a reason why.
“The last member of Congress to enter Gaza was Keith Ellison more than a decade ago. That is crazy. That is completely unacceptable,” he said. “They can’t block American policymakers, especially with the friendship and assistance we give. We need to be able to see what's happening and we need to be able to share those stories.”
Pocan, who is currently in his fifth term, said that he believes in the two-state solution, but that it is unfeasible “under the current steps that are being taken in the region – whether it be in continued settlements, the demolishing of homes in the West Bank or the conditions in Gaza.”
The possibility of such a solution is slowly vanishing on multiple fronts, he said. “When you see the continued settlement encroachment within the West Bank and you see the continued demolition of homes, often with U.S. taxpayer dollars being involved, I see all those as hindrances,” he said. Another obstacle to peace, he added, is the Israeli detention of Palestinian youth through military courts.
“I don't personally use the word apartheid, but people have to be careful because when you see big walls and different roads that people can travel on, you're going hear things like apartheid mentioned,” he cautioned.
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Pocan credited the wave of progressive Democrats elected for the evolving conversation on Capitol Hill, saying that the current political breakdown empowers progressives to help dictate the agenda.
He described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 2015 speech to Congress on the Iran nuclear deal as a turning point in U.S. lawmakers’ questioning of unqualified support for Israel, and gave way to the partisanship regarding the conflict seen in Congress today. “That was a pivotal moment of stopping these bipartisan blinders on not looking at what was happening in the region, and now more of us are willing to look and try to be objective.”
He highlighted Rep. Barbara Lee’s chairing of the Foreign and State Operations appropriations subcommittee as a notably positive development in achieving substantial change. He described her as a key policymaker and a tremendous advocate for peace and human rights, and believes she will be willing to diverge from the status quo regarding regional issues.
Pocan recently co-lead a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the U.S. government to push Israel to better facilitate COVID-19 vaccinations for the Palestinians. He also co-sponsored Rep. Betty McCollum’s recent bill specifying various actions Israel may not finance with U.S. taxpayer funding, as well as calling for additional oversight of how aid is distributed.
“We can't just sit back and do nothing, you can't just pick a side and move forward,” Pocan said, noting that he supports Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and general security funding to Israel.
Pocan, who is openly gay, praised Israel’s treatment of its LGBTQ community while drawing a contrast with Palestinian treatment of its LGBTQ community. But, he noted, “That doesn’t stop me as a human being from caring about whether a kid who throws a rock should be shot or if we should take out someone’s home so we can have settlers encroaching into the West Bank,” he said. “You can’t expect me to flutter my eyes because of this one issue.”
He has spoken with Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, Biden's point person on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on a number of issues including U.S. equipment being used in demolitions and renewed U.S. aid for Palestinians. Pocan is quick to praise him, saying Amr understands that peace cannot be reached via a one-sided approach.
“This is a person who is a professional, not a political appointee. We’re in agreement on priorities toward peace. When they said they were going to release funds, they did release funds,” he said, saying that the move bolstered his confidence in Amr. “I came away from our conversation feeling like we have someone who truly listens and understands.”