Thursday, February 19, 2009
Two Members of Congress, Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) and Brian Baird (D-Washington) visited Gaza on Thursday to view first-hand the destruction from recent Israeli air and ground attacks, and to meet with international and local relief agencies.
The visit, which did not have the official sanction of the Obama
Administration, is the first time anyone from the United States government has entered into Gaza in more than three years.
Prior to entering Gaza, the Congressmen met with the chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority, and traveled to the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet with Dr. Riad Malki, Foreign Minister of the Palestinian Authority.
On Friday, Ellison and Baird will tour the Israeli towns of Sderot and
Ashkelon, which have been the targets of numerous rocket attacks, repeatedly launched from within the Gaza strip, and which Israel has said are one of the root causes for their recent actions into Gaza.
"Staff from the U.S. State Department advised us of security concerns for our own safety, and we are well aware of the sensitive political issues involved in this visit," said both Congressmen in an official release. "But we believe it is important to be here to see what happened for ourselves; to meet directly with people who have been affected by the destruction, and to express our concern and support," said Congressman Baird.
"We also want to better understand what can and must be done to recover from the devastation, address the underlying issues, and work toward a lasting, just and peaceful resolution," said Congressman Ellison.
After spending the day visiting various locations within Gaza, and meeting with civilians and relief workers, Ellison and Baird were deeply affected by what they had seen and heard.
"The stories about the children affected me the most," said Ellison. "No
parent, or anyone who cares for kids, can remain unmoved by what Brian and I saw here."
"The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering" said Baird, "Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed, schools completely leveled, fundamental needs such as water, sewer, and electricity facilities have been hit and immobilized. Relief agencies, themselves, have been heavily damaged. The personal stories of children being killed in their homes or schools; of entire families wiped out, and relief workers prevented from evacuating the wounded are heart wrenching. What went on here? And what is continuing to go on, is shocking and troubling beyond words." the Washington state Congressman said.
Inquiring about the status of relief efforts, the Congressmen learned that some aid material has been allowed in since the intensity of the attacks lessened a month ago, but much is still being blocked by the Israeli defense forces. An example of aid that has been banned by the Israeli Government includes lentils, macaroni, tomato paste, and other common food products. Basic building materials, generator fuel and parts to repair damaged water treatment equipment have also been kept out.
"If this had happened in our own country, there would be national outrage and an appeal for urgent assistance. We are glad that President Obama acted quickly to send much needed humanitarian funding to Gaza for this effort. However, the arbitrary and unreasonable Israeli limitations on food, and repair and reconstruction materials are unacceptable and indefensible. People; innocent children, women and non-combatants, are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in" said Ellison.
The Congressmen's concerns about treatment of Palestinians were not limited to Gaza. They also visited Palestinian hospitals that treat patients from East Jerusalem and the West Bank. There they met with doctors, nurses and hospital directors who described how official Israeli policies restrict border checkpoints which make it exceedingly difficult and expensive for patients, nurses, medical technicians, and other essential personnel to reach the hospital to receive or provide care.
"It's hard for anyone in our country to imagine how it must feel to have a sick child who needs urgent care or is receiving chemotherapy or dialysis, then to be forced to take a needlessly lengthy route, walk rather than drive, and wait in lines as long as two hours simply to get to the hospital. As a health care professional myself, I found this profoundly troubling ? no, actually it's beyond that, it is outrageous." said Baird.
Responding to this and other issues the Congressmen emphasized that
fundamental changes and solutions are needed beyond the immediate challenges in Gaza.
"The first and most urgent priority must be to help the people in Gaza. At the same time, the rocket attacks against Israeli cities must stop
immediately. Just as the people of Gaza should not be subject to what they have experienced, the Israeli civilians should not have to live in fear of constant and indiscriminate rocketing. The entire region and the
international community must recommit itself to making the difficult but
necessary changes to bring about lasting and just peace, and security for the region. President Obama has made important and encouraging
initiatives. United States Special Envoy, George Mitchell, will undoubtedly listen long to the aggrieved parties and then give advice accordingly. For now it is up to leaders and citizens here in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel to move forward toward that shared goal," Ellison and Baird concluded.
Congressman Keith Ellison & Congressman Brian Baird
Ellison contact: Rick.Jauert
Baird contact: Lisa.Austin