Sen. Sanders: “Let’s be clear. No one is arguing that Israel, or any government, does not have the right to self-defense or to protect its people. So why are these words repeated year after year, war after war? And why is the question almost never asked: “What are the rights of the Palestinian people?”
In this moment of crisis, the United States should be urging an immediate cease-fire. We should also understand that, while Hamas firing rockets into Israeli communities is absolutely unacceptable, today’s conflict did not begin with those rockets.
And why do we seem to take notice of the violence in Israel and Palestine only when rockets are falling on Israel?”
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In a guest essay for The New York Times, Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, notes the United States provides nearly $4 billion a year in aid to Israel.
“We can no longer be apologists for the right-wing Netanyahu government and its undemocratic and racist behavior,” he wrote. “We must change course and adopt an evenhanded approach, one that upholds and strengthens international law regarding the protection of civilians.”
He argued the Biden administration “must uphold international standards of human rights consistently, even when it’s politically difficult” if the United States is to remain a credible voice on human rights globally.
“We must recognize that Palestinian rights matter. Palestinian lives matter,” he said, invoking a variation of the slogan used during last year’s civil rights backlash against incidents of police brutality against African Americans.
Sanders warned that Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption as he tries to build support for a new coalition government, has often exploited racist and nationalist sentiments to stay in power.
“In his frantic effort to stay in power and avoid prosecution for corruption, Mr. Netanyahu has legitimized these forces, including Itamar Ben Gvir and his extremist Jewish Power party, by bringing them into government,” he wrote.
“These dangerous trends are not unique to Israel. Around the world, in Europe, in Asia, in South America and here in the United States, we have seen the rise of similar authoritarian nationalist movements,” he added.
The New York Times published the essay after Israel attacked Gaza with ground troops early Friday, escalating violence in the region. Israeli defense forces have hit targets in Gaza with air and artillery strikes in retaliation for Hamas firing rockets into Israel.
Sanders in his essay concedes that Israel has a right to defend itself, a line that many of his Senate Democratic colleagues used on Capitol Hill earlier in the week.
But the progressive senator said it’s time for U.S. policymakers to call out actions and policies by the Netanyahu government that he believes have set the stage for a crisis.
“We have seen Benjamin Netanyahu’s government work to marginalize and demonize Palestinian citizens of Israel, pursue settlement policies designed to foreclose the possibility of a two-state solution and pass laws that entrench systemic inequality between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel,” Sanders wrote Friday.
He said this doesn’t excuse the attacks by Hamas or the “corrupt and ineffective” leadership of the Palestinian authority.
But he argues that Israel is “the one sovereign authority in the land of Israel and Palestine” and instead of pursuing peace negotiations in good faith has been “entrenching its unequal and undemocratic control.”
Sanders’s essay is the latest evidence of growing tension over Israel’s treatment of Palestinian civilians.
A proposal to evict Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem has prompted outcry from Sanders and other progressive leaders, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has criticized Hamas as a “terrorist entity” and condemned the firing of rockets into civilian areas of Israel as “unforgiveable.”
But he says Israel “must reexamine how it deploys its disproportionate power, including its ongoing de facto annexation of Palestinian territory.”
Other Democrats are pushing back on criticism of Israel.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has praised Israel as “a country of laws” and predicted there will be a fair resolution of the proposed eviction of Palestinian families.
“I have confidence in their judicial system, so let’s let their judicial system play this out,” he told The Hill.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has pushed back on criticisms from fellow Democrats that Israeli settlement policy is violating international law.
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“I don’t know. I’m not an expert in international law to come to that conclusion,” he told The Hill. “I’m not about to preempt whatever they decide under Israeli laws.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is up for reelection next year, isn’t picking any sides in what is becoming a growing disagreement within his caucus.
“I hope both sides can come together and bring peace,” he said Tuesday.