Amid a growing chorus of condemnation of Israeli violence by American lawmakers this week, the House’s second-highest ranking Democratic, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, defended Israel’s violence against Palestinian protesters and stood by the Trump administration’s controversial decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“Israel’s in a tough situation. It’s trying to defend its borders,” Hoyer said in response to a question from The Intercept at a pen-and-pad session on Tuesday with reporters on Capitol Hill. “All the world would hope that it would be done so in a peaceful manner, but when you have a terrorist organization in front of you, that is historically and continuing to use violence, that makes it very tough.”
Hoyer, the minority whip, was referring to a threat he claimed Israel faces from Hamas. But it was unarmed civilian protesters, not militants, who Israeli soldiers targeted on Monday, killing at least 58 people and injuring 2,771 others, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The protests in Gaza were in part responding to the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, but were more broadly part of a six-week protest called the “Great March of Return,” in which Gazans demanded the right to return to the homes they were evicted from 70 years ago.
Since the inception of the protests — which led up to Nakba day on May 15 (the day Palestinians observe as the start of their “catastrophe” of displacement) — the Israeli government has sought to portray them as being organized by Hamas. The movement’s grassroots organizers have vehemently disputed the claim. “The Israeli government’s allegations that Hamas organized these protests are lies, and are defamatory statements that have no basis in reality,” Nabeel Diab, one of the organizers, told Mondoweiss. “This march is the embodiment of popular action involving children, women, and involving all the Palestinians that refuse to accept the occupation of our land.”
Hoyer has sided not only with the Israelis, but also with the Trump administration, which on Monday quashed a resolution calling for an independent inquiry into the killings in Gaza. On Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Israel acted with “restraint” in its response to Palestinian protesters. She walked out of the room when the Palestinian delegation spoke.
“Hamas has undertaken to use, to continue to use violence, to continue to use the threat of … going into Israel, and continue to use human shields — all of which is unfortunate. And Israel is in a very difficult situation, when probably large numbers of people want to enter Israel from a place that has been threatening Israel for some years now,” Hoyer said to The Intercept.
He also offered a justification for the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“Jerusalem has been the capital for a very long period of time. Our moving our embassy didn’t make it the capital, nor if it wasn’t there, didn’t make it not the capital. It’s been the capital. And frankly, when delegations go to Israel, they meet with members of the Knesset in … Jerusalem,” he said. “We meet with the prime minister in Jerusalem. So I want to dismiss the fact that this was a cause for violence.”
Hoyer also defended the controversial move when the Trump administration announced it in December. Though many U.S. presidential candidates have promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Trump was the first to follow through. Critics fear that moving the U.S. Embassy is an effective endorsement of Israeli claims that the city will be the “undivided” capital of Israel, despite the fact that 300,000 Palestinians, who are deprived of basic civil and human rights, live in East Jerusalem. Most experts agree that any future Palestinian state would include East Jerusalem.
Gaza, which has been described as an “open-air prison,” is a densely populated strip of land that is home to some 2 million Palestinians, and blockaded from land and sea by Israel and Egypt. While some Palestinian protesters did try to breach the fence separating Gaza from Israel during Monday’s protest, human rights monitors on the ground are adamant that Israel’s use of live ammunition was not justified.
The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem has called on the Israeli military to disobey commands to use live ammunition on protesters who do not pose a threat to Israelis, saying they have an obligation under the law to disobey illegal orders. Some Palestinian demonstrators threw rocks, lit tires on fire, and used slingshots, but not a single Israeli soldier was wounded, let alone put in a situation in which they would be justified using lethal force.
Hoyer’s defense of Israel also came despite growing progressive criticism of Israeli human rights abuses. On Monday, the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus called on Israel to stop using live ammunition against nonviolent protesters.
We are shocked & dismayed by the lethal force used by Israeli troops against mostly unarmed protestors demonstrating in #Gaza.— Rep. Mark Pocan (@repmarkpocan) May 14, 2018
Netanyahu's government must show utmost restraint, allow for unfettered medical attention for those who have been wounded, & ease the 12-year blockade. pic.twitter.com/9gb545xZZz
Likely 2020 Democratic presidential contenders like Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have both called on the Israeli military to exercise restraint and stop killing unarmed protesters. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., went further, asking the State Department to evaluate its aid to Israel and determine if it should prohibit military support to certain units. Progressive Democratic contender for office Randy Bryce called on Israel to allow Democrats to visit Gaza and “observe its humanitarian crisis.”
Following the killings of Palestinian protesters on Monday, the 6-million-member-strong MoveOn.org, a leading progressive organization, issued an unusually strong statement, condemning the embassy move and demanding that the Israeli military stop using lethal violence against protesters. It asked “every single Democratic elected official to” echo these concerns.
The grassroots progressive organization CREDO Mobile, which similarly has been reticent to talk about the issue to its 3.5 million members, signal-boosted statements on its Twitter page, condemning the Israeli military’s behavior in Gaza.
Hoyer’s importance in the Democratic Party cannot be understated. He is not only influential in setting the agenda for House Democrats in Congress, but he plays an outsized role in vetting potential Democratic candidates for office. Last month, The Intercept published secretly recorded audio featuring Hoyer pressuring a progressive candidate to drop out of a race in Colorado.