WASHINGTON – Israel "massively overreacted" to protests at the Gaza border, Senator Bernie Sanders told the annual conference of the pro-peace Jewish group J Street on Monday.
"The presence of Hamas members among a crowd of tens of thousands does not justify the level of violence we saw, and frankly it’s amazing to me that anyone would find that point controversial," Sanders said. "I have condemned Hamas’ use of terrorist violence and will continue to do so. But that violence cannot excuse shooting at unarmed protesters, and it cannot excuse trapping almost 2 million people inside Gaza."
Sanders criticized "the reactionary policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu" and slammed "the inhumane blockade of Gaza," but added that other countries in Israel's region also fail to do enough. The senator specifically mentioned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who recently visited the United States.
"So I say to the crown prince and the other multi-billionaire leaders in the region, stop just talking about the poverty and distress in Gaza, do something meaningful about it," Sanders said. "I heard the other day that the Saudi king pledged $50 million to UNRWA, the UN agency that works with Palestinian refugees. Fifty million dollars is not a small sum of money, but let us not forget that it is ten percent of what the crown prince paid for a yacht."
Sanders went on to discuss the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict and expressed concern over the future of the two-state solution. According to Sanders, putting an end to the Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state "is in the interest of Americans Israelis, Palestinians and the entire region."
But, Sanders said, "Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies seem to be preparing for a different future, in which Israel controls the entire territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River in perpetuity."
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He also slammed the Trump administration's policy on Israel and its decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, saying that with the move, "President Trump has severely undermined the peace process." As a result, Sanders said, "the ultimate deal" is now "farther away than it has ever been, and trust in the United States as an honest and even-handed broker is almost non-existent."
Sanders concluded his speech by discussing "the rise of intolerant authoritarian political movements and governments which are attacking the very foundations of democratic societies" around the world. He accused Trump and other leaders of exploiting frustrations among the public "for their own political and economic ends."
Sanders spoke after Susan Rice, the national security adviser of former U.S. President Barack Obama, who mocked Trump for saying early on in his presidency "how easy it will be to get Middle East peace." The crowd burst out laughing when Rice was asked what role she thinks the Trump administration can play in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "They inherited a problem that seems increasingly far from a solution," she said.