CONGRESSMAN WANTS MILITARY AID TO ISRAEL REASSESSED

A US congressman plans to brief fellow members of Congress and the Obama administration about his recent trip to Gaza, saying the US should pressure Israel regarding border closures and reassess its military support for the Jewish state.

Rep. Brian Baird, a Democrat from Washington state, visited Gaza last week with fellow Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and was struck by “the level of destruction, the scope of it, specifically the civilian targets – schools, hospitals, industry.”

Baird also said Israel had “apparently willfully destroyed any capacity of the Palestinians to rebuild their own infrastructure.”

The trip to Gaza by Baird and Ellison coincided with a separate visit there by John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Their presence marked the first time members of Congress had visited Gaza since US personnel were killed in a roadside bomb in 2003.

Baird maintained that his fellow congressmen would benefit from his first-hand account of the situation in Gaza, as well as from photos and video footage he took. In addition to pictures of physical devastation in Gaza and families living in make-shift shelter there, Baird also has photos of damage from rocket fire on Sderot, which he condemned and planned to share as well. He also indicated he would like to bring in aid and medical workers from Gaza to share their stories.

“If our colleagues had seen what we have seen, I think their understanding of the situation would be significantly impacted,” he said. “They would care about what happened to the Palestinians.”

Baird added that he hoped they, as well as members of the Obama administration, would come away with a sense that “the US has a responsibility to insist on a change in the situation in Gaza and the situation in the West Bank.”

The congressman said he would like to see more humanitarian aid and goods reaching the people of Gaza, accompanied by open border crossings that would allow Palestinians to travel for trade and medical care.

He also said he was troubled by the American origin of so much of the IDF weaponry used in Gaza, and suggested that the US should reconsider the military aid it provides and the weapons it sells to Israel.

“We need to use every pressure available to make these needed changes happen,” he said.

Baird said the Congressional briefing could come as early as next week, with administration briefings being more tentative. He has also talked to Ellison about penning op-eds and otherwise raising awareness of the issue.

Ellison’s office had not responded to queries from The Jerusalem Post by press time.

Pro-Israel organizations were chagrined at the message Baird was preparing to deliver to his colleagues but said they weren’t concerned that many minds would be changed.

“By and large, we continue to see support for Israel and understand why it was necessary for Israel’s leaders to do what they did,” one official said about Congress, speaking anonymously. “I’m not afraid of these members coming back and giving a briefing.”

A representative from a dovish Israeli group welcomed Baird’s efforts to publicize his experience in Gaza, noting that it was unusual to hold Congressional briefings presenting this perfect, but also didn’t expect members’ attitudes towards Israel to change.

“To expect that that would bring about a sharp change in Congress’s attitude toward Israel is a reach,” he said.

Meanwhile, the State Department said Monday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would pledge a “substantial” amount of aid for Gaza and the Palestinian Authority at a donors’ meeting in Egypt next week.

The conference, to take place in Sharm e-Sheikh on March 2, was called to raise funds for the reconstruction of Gaza.

“The United States will announce a substantial pledge of humanitarian assistance and support for the Palestinian Authority,” an official said.

The official declined to give a figure because Congress had yet to approve the sum, but said it could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Preliminary estimates have put the damage in the Gaza Strip following Operation Cast Lead at nearly $2 billion.

See Related: ISRAEL-MIDEAST

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