WASHINGTON — US Senator Bernie Sanders on Monday castigated Israel for its handling of recent clashes at the Gaza border, telling the liberal Mideast advocacy group J Street that Israel “massively overreacted” to the protests.
“Though the overwhelming majority of these protestors were non-violent,” the Vermont lawmaker said, “we know that some of them were not, and when Israeli soldiers are in danger, we can all agree that they have a right to defend themselves.”
“But I don’t think that any objective person can disagree that Israel has massively reacted to these demonstrations,” he added.
On the last three Fridays, tens of thousands of Gazans, with the encouragement of the Hamas terror group that rules Gaza, have been undertaking weekly protests at the border. Some rioters have tried to damage and break the security fence and infiltrate Israel, while others have thrown petrol bombs and rocks, and burned tires.
The Israel Defense Forces has so far killed at least 30 Palestinians in the border clashes, according to the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry. One of them, a Gaza photojournalist was shot in the torso while wearing a “press” vest when working in an area engulfed in thick black smoke caused by protesters setting tires on fire. Hamas has acknowledged five of the dead were its members, and Israel has claimed that several other fatalities were members of terrorist groups.
“Israeli forces were commanded to respond by opening fire on the crowd with a combination of live ammunition and rubber-coated bullets,” Sanders, the former presidential candidate, said.
“I understand that the Netanyahu government is trying to make this all about Hamas in order to delegitimize any opposition to the blockade and the occupation,” he went on, referring to the security blockade Israel maintains on Gaza to prevent Hamas from importing weaponry. “The presence of Hamas members among a crowd of tens of thousands does not justify the level of violence we saw. Frankly, it is amazing to me that anyone would find that point of view controversial.”
The IDF has said it uses live fire and crowd dispersal methods in accordance with IDF open-fire regulations.
Sanders, who spoke at the annual J Street confab for the first time last year, where he was given a rock-star reception, called on Washington to alter its foreign policy approach to the coastal enclave.
“I have condemned Hamas’s use of terrorist violence and will continue to do so. But that violence cannot excuse the shooting of unarmed protesters and it cannot excuse trapping almost two million people inside of Gaza,” he said, to much applause.
“In my view, the United States must play a more aggressive and even-handed role in ending the Gaza blockade and helping Palestinians and Israelis build a future that works for all. If the White House is unable to do that, Congress must take the lead.”
On Friday, at least 10,000 Gazans took part in large-scale demonstrations, with the Israeli military saying protesters hurled an explosive device and firebombs at Israeli troops deployed at the border, as well as making “several attempts” to damage the fence between Israel and Gaza, and cross over into Israeli territory. A week earlier, about 20,000 Palestinians took part in the demonstrations, with the previous week attracting an estimated 30,000.
The protests are part of what Hamas said will be several weeks of “March of Return” demonstrations, which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the liberation of Palestine. Israel has no military or civilian presence in Gaza, having unilaterally withdrawn to the pre-1967 lines and dismantled its settlements in Gaza in 2005. Hamas seized control of the strip two years later.
Gaza leaders have planned the marches to culminate in a million-strong march in mid-May, to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, and Nakba Day — when the Palestinians mark what they call the “catastrophe” that befell them with Israel’s creation. The “Return” refers to Palestinians’ demand that tens of thousands of refugees and their millions of descendants be allowed to live in today’s Israel, an influx that would spell the end of Israel as the world’s sole Jewish-majority state.
Sanders said there was lots of “blame to go around” for the situation in Gaza. He specifically targeted Hamas, the Israeli government, and other regional leaders.
“While we rightfully criticize the Netanyahu government for its obstructionism and for its unwillingness to seriously negotiate with Palestinians, we must also demand that the incredibly wealthy regional states and kingdoms in the area play a new and much more positive role in helping to rebuild Gaza and bring stability to the region,” he said.
The Brooklyn native, who is Jewish, specifically called out the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who is known as MBS. Sanders mentioned his commitment to donate $50 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, but that he also also owned a $500 million boat.
“Let us not forget that that is 10 percent of what the crown prince paid for his yacht,” Sanders bellowed.
Frequently referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “complicated,” Sanders said he was concerned with the Trump administration’s policy regarding the two-state solution. He argued that opposing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has in recent years wavered from his 2009 support for two states, did not render him hostile to the Jewish state.
“As someone who believes absolutely and unequivocally in Israel’s right to exist, and to exist in peace and security, as someone who, as a young man, lived in Israel for a number of months and is very proud of his Jewish heritage, as someone who is deeply concerned about the global rise of anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, we must say loudly and clearly that to oppose the reactionary policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not make us anti-Israel,” Sanders said.