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Seeing the Reality of Palestine/Israel

Frank Cordaro at Gaza vigil
Frank Cordaro of the Des Moines Catholic Worker Community addresses a June 2, 2010 rally in Des Moines condemning the Israeli assault on an aid flotilla to Gaza. Photo: Kathleen McQuillen / AFSC

An interview with Kathleen McQuillen, AFSC Iowa Area Program Coordinator

Jon Krieg: Kathleen, please tell us about your recent meeting with staff for Senator Tom Harkin. Who was involved and what did you talk about?

Kathleen McQuillen: We had a meaningful conversation today with Senator Harkin’s DC staff. On our end, we had some people who’ve been involved in Middle East peace issues for a long time, including former AFSC regional director Eloise Cranke, Chet Guinn and Ambre Grund, all of whom are involved with the United Methodist Church.

We had a couple new people who are deeply involved in Presbyterian work and have been to Israel and Palestine many times – Connie DePond and Liz Knott. And then we had a young man from the Islamic Center who is Palestinian, Mohamed Abusharkh.

It made for a very meaningful meeting with Senator Harkin’s staff--Derek Miller, his legislative director, and Rosemary Guiterez, his international affairs director.

Earlier this summer, we had a presence at the Federal Building in Des Moines in the wake of the Gaza flotilla attack by Israeli commandoes. At that time, we asked both Senators Harkin and Grassley to work with the State Department to get an investigation into the attacks. While we got a nice letter back from Senator Harkin, he really did not respond to our specific requests.

So one, we wanted to ask for more specifics from Senator Harkin. Two, we wanted to acknowledge that in Senator Harkin’s letter, we saw wording and tone that suggested a softening of his position regarding Palestine and maybe noting for the first time some responsibility for Israel to work for a peaceful settlement of the issues.

Jon Krieg: What did Senator Harkin’s staff say in response to your concerns?

Kathleen McQuillen: We each shared a little and then talked about U.S. funding for Israel and why it’s so important for the senator to be involved. He keeps voting for this military funding, which is $3 billion a year at a minimum.  There are other ways that Israel receives funding, but the direct, clear funding that Congress  votes on every year is $3 billion. So it’s already been voted on or appropriated, established first by the Bush Administration and continued under Obama.

We talked about how Congress has a responsibility, as much as they might want to look away. But they do keep voting on it, and we called on them to take a look at how U.S. weapons have been used by Israel  against the Palestinians. There are a couple really significant laws which just keep being ignored -- our own laws, as well as international laws. We have an Arms Export and Control Act, and that specifies that any weapons sold or given to another country cannot be used against civilians. Further, it says that such weapons can only be used for legitimate self-defense and for internal security. A glance at that, from my perspective, says that Israel is clearly in violation of our arms export laws.

Also, our Foreign Assistance Act says that no assistance can be provided to a government that has a pattern of violating human rights. Again, given what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people – the separation wall, land seizure, and house demolitions – to us, it’s not even questionable. These are clear human rights violations, and yet we have laws saying weapons cannot be transferred to such countries.

What we were doing at this end--and we do need to think about next steps--is saying: Tie your Israeli funding votes to progress on these issues, Israel’s behavior and whether there’s been a thorough investigation into how the weapons are being used.

So first, Senator, ask the State Department to look into how the weapons are being used and whether they are in violation of U.S. law, and secondly, call for an investigation into the attack on the Gaza aid flotilla, and whether that was a violation of U.S. law and whether U.S. weapons were used. But even if not – and I think there were indications that U.S. weapons were used – but even if not, international laws have been violated. We want Senator Harkin to weigh those factors when he votes.

Was the investigation completed? What did they decide? What steps were taken? What was called for from Israel? Has Israel complied? If the answers on these are no, then stop voting to fund Israeli weapons.

So that was a big piece of it. As I said, one young man in our group, Mohammed, he’s from Palestine, he has family in Gaza. He’s got some real direct knowledge and experience. Another woman in our group has traveled there 15 times, another woman has been there 30 times. I’ve been there.

U.S. Representative Brian Baird has been doing a good job of lifting up the Palestinian story in Congress. I heard him speak recently, and he made a simple statement that’s really stayed with me. He said it’s important for everyone to go and see what’s happening in Palestine and in Gaza. He said, “What you see, you cannot unsee.” What a simple way to say it, but apparently it’s stayed with him forever.

Senator Harkin needs to see it, as well. So we asked that he take a trip there. We noted that Rep. Baird is going again next spring and would like Senator Harkin to participate.

Jon Krieg: Your group has also talked with Senator Grassley’s office about these issues?

Kathleen McQuillen: We have. We stopped at Sen. Grassley’s office after we did the vigil at the Federal Building in the wake of the flotilla attack. We left the same statement with Senator Grassley. I’m not aware of any response. I think we followed up with Sen. Harkin because we saw some opening in his tone and his call for Israel to act in accordance with democratic principles, which is not something he’s called for in the past.

We will have to talk about the idea of going back to Senator Grassley’s office and asking for a specific response. Back around the time of the Gaza war in December 2008, we had a phone conversation with Sen. Grassley, basically asking for the same thing, an investigation. We may have gotten a form letter back.

With Senator Harkin’s staff today, we were very specific in asking for a timeframe in which we would get a response. We could not get that. We said we would be in touch with them in a month and see what progress has been made in having a conversation about these things.

It was sort of interesting -- I tried to press  them on this because I didn’t have a sense from Sen. Harkin’s staff that this was anywhere near a priority issue. I wanted to ask them whether they or Senator Harkin see this as important. What is the conversation they have about it? How do they rate this? And it’s pretty clear it’s not high on their issues of concern.

His staff began to talk about some of the daunting domestic issues going on, and yes, they’re very important. However, they’re not separate, and we tried to make that connection. Not only the money that’s going to Israel, but also what’s growing out of U.S. bias and unfair interactions with Israel versus Palestine. The diplomatic cover which the U.S. keeps giving to Israel is making us so disliked in much of the Arab world, and there’s a heavy cost to that.

It was certainly cited before the 911 attacks by Osama bin Laden as one of the factors. So there’s a lot of work that has to be done to deal with our relations with that part of the world. We can’t separate them and say, “We’re only going to deal with domestic issues,” because it’s making us focus on war making when we should be focused on our domestic issues.

Jon Krieg: The $34 billion Congress recently approved for the Afghanistan war is money not going to shore up levies in Iowa; 2800 Iowa National Guard troops are heading to Afghanistan and won’t be available to help with flooding in Iowa. We have dams that are failing, a nine-mile lake is gone….

Kathleen McQuillen: Those immediate things are important. The Army Corps of Engineers came up with a report in 1993 calling for what needs to be done. And here we are 17 years later and our levies and dams are not repaired, and how much of that is because the money’s not there and we’re spending it with the Guard and the military and aid to Israel? The issues are all connected.

One of the persons whom Sen. Harkin respects and pays attention to is Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. The point that Professor Telhami keeps trying to make is the U.S. bias toward Israel is making it so very difficult for the Arab world to deal with the U.S. Even if they want to, their population is so irate about what Israel is doing with U.S. backing. Those who would want to play a positive diplomatic role in addressing the conflict are pushed further away because of this.

Again, we lifted that up to Senator Harkin’s staff. We left a packet of material which included an article written by Professor Telhami. We asked Harkin’s staff, “Who do you need to be hearing from so that you understand our side?” They said they were pretty comfortable they hear from everyone they need to and that they appreciate our presence.

But we think there’s more. We’re going to continue to make invitations and reach out to more people to get involved. That’s encouraging. It’s a growing issue. We have to make sure we’re learning from our work and continue to bring in new voices.