As Most Democrats Stay Silent, Elizabeth Warren Calls on Israel to Exercise Restraint Against Palestinian Protesters

Warren's statement is a sign of changes in the Democratic Party, which has historically been stridently pro-Israel.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) arrives at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 1, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren arrives at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 1, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., broke with the political establishment and called on the Israeli government to respect the rights of Palestinian protesters in Gaza in a statement to The Intercept on Wednesday.

“I am deeply concerned about the deaths and injuries in Gaza,” Warren said. “As additional protests are planned for the coming days, the Israel Defense Forces should exercise restraint and respect the rights of Palestinians to peacefully protest.”

The statement is a sign that the turning tide of opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the Democratic Party — which has traditionally been stridently pro-Israel — is trickling up to senior figures in the party. (A recent survey from the Pew Research Center showed that Democrats are almost as likely to be sympathetic to Palestinians as they are to Israelis.) It also signifies Warren’s personal evolution on the issue, as she has not always acknowledged Palestinian rights. In 2014, Warren more or less repeated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talking points about the war in Gaza, defending Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas, even as the military bombarded civilian infrastructure in Gaza. She also walked away when asked a question about Gaza at the liberal Netroots Nation conference that year.

Warren is the second potential 2020 presidential candidate to speak up in favor of Palestinian rights in recent weeks. The first was Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., who was the first member of Congress to comment on the situation at all when he said the killing of protesters in Gaza was “tragic” in a tweet late last month.

In a follow-up appearance on CNN, Sanders was asked about the Israeli government’s explanation that it was responding to “direct attacks” from Hamas fighters in the crowd.

“Do you accept the Israeli government’s explanation?” host Jake Tapper asked.

“No, I don’t. I think, from what my understanding is, is you have tens and tens of thousands of people who are engaged in a nonviolent protest. I believe now 15 or 20 people, Palestinians, have been killed, and many, many others have been wounded,” Sanders replied.

More than two dozen Palestinian protesters were killed, and more than a thousand were wounded, when Israel responded with lethal force to protests along its border with the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli government said its use of force was justified because it was targeting “instigators” who approached the border fence. Some Palestinians did indeed throw rocks and burn tires near the border, but those makeshift weapons pale in comparison to the weapons of the Israeli military. Indeed, human rights monitors saw no evidence that these behaviors threatened Israeli soldiers in a way that justified the use of lethal force.

“The high number of deaths and injuries was the foreseeable consequence of granting soldiers leeway to use lethal force outside of life-threatening situations in violation of international norms, coupled with the longstanding culture of impunity within the Israeli army for serious abuses,” Human Rights Watch said in its report on the violence.

The protests were part of what Gazans are calling the “Great March of Return,” designed to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and the plight of Palestinian refugees. The protests, which started at the end of March, are expected to continue for six weeks until May 15. That day marks the Nakba, which means “disaster” in Arabic: the day when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted from their homes during the creation of the state of Israeli in 1948.

In addition to Sanders and Warren, three other members of Congress have voiced concerns about Israeli conduct towards protesters in Gaza: Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.; and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.

Israel’s government officials have shown no sign that they are willing to rein in their military’s heavy-handed responses as protests continue. But international pressure could change their calculus.

That’s why the response from the United States government is important. The U.S. gives Israel billions of dollars in military aid annually, and the administration typically protects Israel from international accountability at the United Nations by vetoing resolutions that are critical of Israel. If Israeli government officials believed that either one of those things was in peril, they could change their behavior.

But on Capitol Hill, most Democrats and Republicans The Intercept talked to this week refused to condemn the Israeli killings of protesters or to call on the government there to respect the rights of Palestinian demonstrators. The unrest in Gaza has made major headlines in recent weeks, but some lawmakers feigned ignorance.

Retiring Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at first claimed he doesn’t know what’s happening.

“I don’t know enough about it,” he said.

When we followed up by pointing out that violently suppressing protests is a long-standing practice of the Israeli military, Corker pivoted to talking about the fact that the Palestinian Authority sometimes delivers payments to the families of slain convicted terrorists.

“We just passed a piece of legislation that I’m really proud of that now takes money from Palestinians while they continue to pay terrorists to kill Israelis. … So, you know, there’s two sides on that issue,” he said.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, placed the blame squarely on Hamas, the Islamist faction that rules Gaza. They’re “deliberately instigating violence, and I think acts of terrorism need to be dealt with in a way that protects innocent life,” he said.

Across the aisle, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., took a similar tack. “We all hope that we can have a peace process that deals with a whole range of issues. Unfortunately, the leadership, the Palestinian leadership, has not made that easier,” he replied. When we followed up and asked if the Israeli military should stop shooting at demonstrators, he claimed ignorance. “I just haven’t seen those reports,” he said.

Newly elected Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., claimed to be unaware of the killings as well. “I probably need to do a little bit more looking at that, because I’m just not as familiar with it,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., when asked about the crackdown against protesters, quickly turned to praise the Israeli military. “I think the IDF stands out in the Middle East as being an ethical military force,” he claimed.

When we followed up by noting that human rights organizations had documented cases of Israeli military units shooting at Palestinian demonstrators and asked if that was appropriate, he replied, “Depends on what the protesters are doing.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, offered general support for the peace process, which has been stalled for years. “We have ongoing concerns as to what’s happening in that part of the world. We’re monitoring the situation,” she added. When we asked her if she would urge the Israeli military to use restraint, she declined further comment. Fellow Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz declined to comment on the issue altogether.

The Intercept reached out to a trio of other high-profile Democratic senators: California’s Kamala Harris, New Jersey’s Cory Booker, and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand. Booker and Gillibrand did not respond to a request for comment. Harris’s office said it would send a statement, but did not do so or respond to a follow-up inquiry.

Five House Democrats led by Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan issued a statement on late Thursday calling on the Israeli military to comply with international law. They also applauded a call from the Israeli human rights group B’tselem asking Israeli soldiers to disobey illegal orders such as being ordered to shoot at civilians.. In addition to Pocan, California’s Barbara Lee, Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, Washington’s Pramila Jayapal and Georgia’s Hank Johnson signed onto the statement:

Additionally, California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein — roughly an hour after 9 activists from the peace group IfNotNow were arrested outside a San Francisco office of hers on Friday calling on her to make a statement — condemned the violence:

Finally, Kate Machet a spokesperson for Massachussetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey gave a response to the group Massachusetts Peace Action after a meeting with his staff. The activist group forwarded that statement to The Intercept on Friday.

“With tensions rising along the Gaza Strip, I am concerned for lives that have been taken and are at risk,” he said. “While Israel must respect Palestinians’ right to protest, I reaffirm my support for a two-state solution as the best means of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and maintaining a secure Israel.”

Updated: April 13, 2018, 8:33 p.m.
This post was updated to add reactions from additional Democrats.

Top photo: Sen. Elizabeth Warren arrives at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, on March 1, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

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