Jimmy Carter has been blunt: Despite the fact of a Palestinian election result that was not to their liking, the former president says, "it is unconscionable for Israel, the United States and others under their influence to continue punishing the innocent and already persecuted people of Palestine."
Since the political wing of the militant group Hamas swept parliamentary elections in Palestine, the U.S. and Israel have been trying to use economic pressure to force a change of course. Disregarding the democracy that President Bush says he wants to promote in the Middle East, the U.S. has sanctioned policies that have fostered chaos on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and created increasingly harsh conditions for people who have known more than their share of suffering.
"Innocent Palestinian people are being treated like animals, with the presumption that they are guilty of some crime," argues Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose involvement in the Middle East peace process has extended across three decades. "Because they voted for candidates who are members of Hamas, the United States government has become the driving force behind an apparently effective scheme of depriving the general public of income, access to the outside world and the necessities of life."
Instead of checking and balancing the president's misguided approach to an election result that displeased him, Congress has added fuel to the fire.
By a lopsided vote of 361 to 37, the House voted Tuesday for the so-called "Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act," a measure so draconian that even the Bush administration has opposed it.
The legislation, which still must be reconciled with a similar measure passed by the Senate, would cut off all assistance to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, and place conditions on humanitarian assistance delivered directly to the Palestinians by non-government organizations. Presidential spokesman Tony Snow, in restating the White House's opposition to the measure says that it "unnecessarily constrains" the flow of essential assistance – food, fresh water, medicine – in a manner that does, indeed, "tie the president's hand" when it comes to providing humanitarian aid.
It also has the potential to encourage, rather than restrain, violence.
Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who was one of the few members of the House to argue against the legislation, correctly explained that the approach endorsed by most of his colleagues will strengthen the hand of Palestinian extremists.
"It does little to prioritize on the basis of our strategic interests, and provides no prospect for Palestinian reform coming through the process of negotiations," Blumenauer said of the legislation. "In so doing, it weakens the hands of those who advocate for peace negotiations, and supports those extremists who believe in violence."
Debra DeLee, President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, which works closely with Israeli groups seeking a peaceful settlement of tensions with the Palestinians, calls the bill "an exercise in overreaching that will undercut American national security needs, Israeli interests, and hope for the Palestinian people, if it's ever signed into law."
"We urged the House to craft legislation that was focused and flexible enough to allow the U.S. to respond to Hamas' election victory in a firm, yet responsible, manner," explained a frustrated DeLee. "But by failing to provide the president with a real national security waiver, by failing to include a sunset clause for draconian performance requirements that will stay on the books regardless of who is running the Palestinian Authority, and by failing to distinguish between Hamas and Palestinians who support a two-state solution, the supporters of this bill have missed that opportunity for now."
Despite its dramatic flaws, the bill drew bipartisan support, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, lining up their respective caucuses behind it.
Of the 37 "no" votes, 31 came from Democrats, including senior members such as Michigan's John Conyers and John Dingell, Californians George Miller and Pete Stark and Wisconsin's David Obey. Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, a contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, also opposed the measure, as did California's Barbara Lee, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus
The six Republican "no" votes came from Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest, North Carolina's Walter Jones, Arizona's Jim Kolbe, Illinois' Ray LaHood and Texans Ron Paul and Mac Thornberry.
As is frequently the case on votes involving Israel and Palestine, dozens of members did not participate. Nine House members, all of them Democrats, voted "present" Tuesday. Twenty-five members, eleven of them Democrats, fourteen of them Republicans, registered no vote.
Americans for Peace Now's DeLee says that, as the House and Senate seek to reconcile differing bills, her group will continue to work to alter the legislation so that it will not encourage extremism or worsen a humanitarian crisis. But there is no question that the task has been made more difficult by the overwhelming House vote in favor of this misguided measure.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. Formerly a writer and editor for The Toledo Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspapers, he is now editorial page editor for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin.
© 2006 The Nation