Many Americans who support Palestinians’ human rights were dismayed a few weeks ago when a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee announced it would hold a hearing on cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority. The panel was announced in response to the PA’s application to join the International Criminal Court—arguably, among Palestinians, the only popular initiative that Mahmoud Abbas has taken in recent memory. The panel was made all the more offensive when subcommittee chairperson Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) revealed that the witness table would be staffed exclusively by neoconservatives—three out of four of whom have written about Palestinian children as constituting a “demographic threat” to the Jewish state.
When the panel assembled yesterday in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, citizens concerned about human rights in Israel/Palestine packed the hearing–to represent the growing-but-still-marginalized contingent of Americans who object to the US government’s one-sided diplomatic and military support for Israel. The chairperson would not be amused.
From the start, it was clear the hearing was anything but mundane, despite its lack of real significance. It was neither an oversight nor a mark-up hearing, but was well-attended by lawmakers when Ros-Lehtinen gavelled the room to order. Capitol Police officers, too, attended in abnormally large numbers, keeping a watchful eyes on attendees organized by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation who gathered to carry out “a silent and dignified protest in support of Israel being held accountable at the ICC.” They held up signs bearing photographs of Israeli atrocities committed in Gaza last summer, adorned with the slogan “#ICC4Israel.” Or they did until the hearing kicked off.
Before making her opening statement, Ros-Lehtinen reminded audience members that disruption was against the law—a statute that expressly forbids the holding-up of signs, she said. At one point, the chairperson quietly dispatched a staffer to tell a man to cease propping such a graphic threat to the public order against his stomach, visible to her and other legislators as it was. If she had been okay with the silent protest, perhaps what happened eventually could have been avoided.
Everything proceeded initially as the subcommittee leaders planned. The chairperson and ranking member, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) traded lamentations about Abbas’ application to join the ICC, questioning the effects the move should have on US aid to the PA, and whether or not the actions of the pseudo-government make it a partner for peace. In December, Congress approved of a law that withholds assistance in the event that the PA “initiate[s] action against Israel at the court.” Despite this unambiguous line having not been crossed, the hearing was decided worthy of everyone’s time and taxpayers’ money.
There were, however, no complaints from panel members, who were practically falling over themselves to praise Ros-Lehtinen and learn from panelists before them. While hearings usually are light on opening statements from members, this proved an exception to the rule.
Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) seemed to think Palestinians asking for accountability was a nuisance, and called on witnesses to suggest policy changes “so we can talk about baseball the next time you come here.” The baby-faced freshman Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) reported being troubled by “the increase in an effort in the international community to isolate and stigmatize Israel.”
“I’m interested in what we can do as a country to stand up for Israel, to stand up for human rights of all people,” he continued, drawing audible gasps from audience members.
Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), meanwhile, said she was worried that the PA’s actions “could do irreparable damage to the peace process” and “contravene international law.”
“We must be clear that joining the ICC is not a viable approach for the Palestinians,” she said.
But perhaps the most outlandish statement came from Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), a man most known for shouting “you lie” to President Obama during an executive address to a joint session of Congress in September 2009. After noting his support for a website called Palestinian Media Watch—also known as “palwatch dot org,” as Rep. Wilson gracefully noted—the conservative lauded the current Israeli government and “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he seeks to promote peace in the region.”
The remark resulted in a hail of boos from the pro-Palestine contingent, who must have felt like political science PhDs being told by a suburban ninth grader to “Google Glenn Beck.” Ros-Lehtinen did not ask the Capitol Police to escort out the offenders.
At this point, the majority of reactions consisted of eye-rolling in response to handwringing and moralizing from the dais over the supposed existential threat to Israel represented by Hamas-Fatah cooperation (unmentioned was the unity government’s policy of unilaterally recognizing Israel without having the favor returned, vis-a-vis a Palestinian state). Rep. Deutch did, however, draw applause in noting, with regret, that the Palestinian Authority would become a member of the ICC on April 1.
But frustrations soon mounted, as the panel launched into their opening statements. Without a token lawmaker willing to even feign consideration that Palestinians deserve legal protections afforded to Israelis, and deprived of even their “silent and dignified protest,” the human rights contingent of the audience increasingly took to audible reactions.
In his opening statement, witness Jonathan Schanzer from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies called for the US to “wage lawfare” against Palestine, strip the PLO of its DC office and “make plans for Abbas to go.” He was roundly booed.
Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich drew derisive laughs from the audience when he suggested the PA, as a non-state, could set the precedent for Boko Haram, the Taliban or ISIS to ask the UN General Assembly to call for “investigations of the US and its allies” (at least, from Eugene’s perspective, the statement garnered more laughter than his Twitter quip on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, wondering whether it was “a protest for #France voting in support of #Palestine SecCouncil resolution”). He also drew groans and eyerolls when he said “Israel has a well-functioning criminal justice system” and that the ICC is “reserved for the worst atrocities” (“that’s why we’re here,” one woman in the audience responded).
The third witness, Danielle Pletka, a defense specialist for the Iraq War-championing American Enterprise Institute, scolded protesters, accusing them of not demonstrating against the Syrian government—a claim that elicited equally valid “we do’s” from the Code Pink contingent and “our tax dollars don’t fund Assad” from another man.
The asymmetrical back-and-forth came to a head, finally, when the ultimate witness, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Makovsky posthumously accused half of the Palestinians killed last summer by Israel of being “terrorists” before lamenting that the ICC application could fuel the BDS movement—the former drew righteous anger, the latter drew cheers.
It was after the applause for BDS that Ros-Lehtinen decided she had enough. She wasn’t going to have her hearing ruined by empathy. The chairperson ground the meeting to a halt and asked the Capitol Police to escort out attendees. “Let’s go,” one ordered. “You heard the chairlady.”
Confusion hung in the air, however, as only a handful of the pro-Palestine contingent had made noise throughout the farce. Lead Code Pink organizer Medea Benjamin, no stranger to being escorted out of congressional hearings for shouting down death peddlers, asked if she, having been on her best behavior, could stay. Her request was turned down. One woman didn’t bother waiting being singled out, and yelled at Pletka as she left, declaring that, as a Syrian, she was offended by the misappropriation of her people’s suffering. At this point, sitting at the aisle, I was asked if I, a quiet observer and freelance journalist, would be allowed to remain. Lacking the credentials, I was not. Out we went.
In the hallway, the boisterousness grew. There was almost a sense of regret that the disruptions weren’t more pointed and deliberate—the hearing, with it’s extreme right-wing character, was political snuff theater, anyway. “They should at least have passed out vomit bags,” Benjamin said, as sympathizers chanted “shame” when the doors to the hearing room opened.
Despite the futility of it all, I tried to get back in. It was confirmed to me at the door, however, that I, as an uncredentialed freelancer, would remain on the outside. “We got people out here more important than that,” one officer told me. A few minutes later, they did an about face, however, after verifying, in their eyes, the legitimacy of my presence. “You’re not Code Pink?” an officer asked. I said no and quietly took my seat.
With demonstrators denied their right to protest in silence, or in measured audibility, I noticed only three seemingly pro-Palestinian demonstrators left in the room: two men wearing kuffiyehs and the man approached by Ros-Lehtinen’s staffer to keep his sign down—the latter probably avoided expulsion because he was sitting in the “Congressional Staff Only” section, once the de facto overflow area while the chamber was crowded. The rest of the seats were mostly filled with suits, who listened intently to the droning legalistic defenses of last summer’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Gaza and attacks on the integrity of the ICC. Ros-Lehtinen then announced that House members were being summoned for a series of votes, and adjourned the meeting at around 3:30, roughly 90 minutes after it started. One of the men wearing a kuffiyeh then casually–almost in a bored manner–picked up an #ICC4Israel sign, and was quickly ushered out the room by Capitol Police, as people officially deemed less offensive approached the witnesses and lawmakers.
Josh Ruebner, the policy director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, approached Ros-Lehtinen to get her views on the whole affair. He told me after that she defended the panel as “not biased” and dismissed the protests as routine. “I wish there was that kind of freedom of speech in Cuba,” said the Cuban-born American whose family fled the island after the Batista dictatorship fell to Castro.
Palestinians, too, wish they had that kind of freedom of expression—the Israeli military law under which the Palestinians in the occupied territories live forbids “assembly, vigil, procession, or publication relating to a political matter or one liable to be interpreted as political,’” in the words of B’Tselem. Not that the chairperson was interested in listening to anyone who could inform her of that fact.
Meanwhile, Ros-Lehtinen’s counterpart was approached by the co-chair of Sabeel DC Metro (a group dedicated to “Justice for Palestine-Israel”) Paul Verduin. Ranking Member Deutch, Verduin relayed to me, said that the panel was assembled the way it was because “we care so very much about peace.” And they say bipartisanship is dead in Washington.
Fortunately, for Palestinians who can count their friends on The Hill with two hands, the Executive Branch isn’t engaging in the same policy. I met lobbyists for the PLO outside the hearing whose said that the State Department and White House do not believe the aid-withdrawal clause of last year’s appropriations act has been triggered.
Ruebner and Verduin, however, still regretted how the hearing played out—pointless though it may have been. The settlements, the indiscriminate bombing, the brutal military occupation under which Palestinians live—they wanted at least one person at the hearing to enter into the Congressional Record why Abbas went to the ICC.