U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) speaks at a news conference on April 7, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Merkley Just Second US Senator to Demand Gaza Cease-Fire

"At this rate there won't be any Palestinians left in Gaza before enough U.S. senators screw up the courage to do the right thing."

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley on Monday became just the second member of the Senate to demand a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, over six weeks into Israel's brutal bombardment and ground operations that have killed over 13,000 Palestinians, including 5,500 children.

The Oregon Democrat's move, which he explained in a lengthy post on Medium, follows a cease-fire call from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the number two Senate Democrat, earlier this month, and demands from a couple dozen Democratic House members.

Merkley, who first visited Israel in 1978, wrote that by his fifth visit earlier this year, "far-right extremists were now helping to drive Israeli government policy," with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having "formed a government with Bezalel Smotrich as minister of finance and Itamar Ben-Gvir as minister of national security."

"Israel has unleashed a bombing campaign on Gaza of phenomenal ferocity... The impression the world has been left with is one of indiscriminate bombing."

"Under such a government, attacks by Israel's settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank have become more frequent and violent, often condoned by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)," he pointed out. "Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA), which had worked closely with the IDF to prevent violence by Palestinians, was losing its legitimacy."

Since winning local elections in 2006, Hamas—which the Israeli and U.S. governments consider a terrorist group—has controlled Gaza, and Israel has limited who and what can come and go. After the October 7 Hamas-led attack in which around 1,200 Israelis were killed and 240 people were taken hostage, Israel declared war and intensified its blockade.

"The whole world was with Israel," Merkley wrote, noting U.S. President Joe Biden's trip to meet with Netanyahu—which was followed by a request that Congress give Israel $14.3 billion in military aid, on top of the $3.8 billion that the country already gets each year. "I and others defended Israel’s right to respond with a campaign targeted at destroying Hamas."

"But the way that Israel has conducted that campaign matters and has been deeply disturbing for me and millions of others," the senator asserted, pointing to civilians in Gaza facing "the immediate possibility of starvation," hospitals operating without basic medical supplies, a lack of clean water that could spread diseases, and Israel's refusal to boost the flow of humanitarian aid.

Merkley also highlighted that "Israel has unleashed a bombing campaign on Gaza of phenomenal ferocity. Israel defends this campaign as necessary to strike Hamas wherever necessary. But the impression the world has been left with is one of indiscriminate bombing. Airstrikes have leveled much of Gaza City and hit crowded refugee camps, schools, hospitals, and even shelters operated by the United Nations."

"The result is mass carnage," he declared. "Too many civilians and too many children have died, and we must value each and every child equally whether they are Israeli or Palestinian. The war will damage Israel's economy with so many workers called to military duty. It also risks undoing the relationships with Arab neighbors won through the Abraham Accords, puts the negotiations for normalization with Saudi Arabia on ice, and could trigger a regional conflict with Hezbollah and other powers."

The senator previously called for humanitarian pauses, the position also held by the White House and various other senators. He wrote Monday that "after grimly witnessing accelerating body counts, many Americans, including thousands of Oregonians, have raised their voices to say more must be done to stop the carnage. I agree. So today I am calling for a cease-fire."

"The cease-fire requires an immediate cessation of military hostilities by both sides. But the cease-fire and the negotiations that follow must accomplish a number of objectives or it will not endure," he stressed. "Most importantly, the Israeli people and the Palestinian people must find leaders determined to partner with each other and the world to replace the cycle of hate and violence with both a long-term vision for security, peace and prosperity featuring two states for two peoples, and immediate, concrete steps toward that goal."

While individuals and groups who have spent weeks demanding a cease-fire—including with massive demonstrations around the world—celebrated Merkley's shift as proof that the pressure is working, he is still just the second of 100 senators.

"At this rate there won't be any Palestinians left in Gaza before enough U.S. senators screw up the courage to do the right thing and demand a cease-fire, and this after collectively embracing colonial Zionism and calling for its incessant support," University of California, Berkeley history professor Ussama Makdisi said on social media.

While many senators and representatives are under pressure from their constituents, a notable target is U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has also faced calls from hundreds of former staffers from his presidential campaigns to demand a cease-fire.

Sanders, who briefly lived in Israel in the 1960s and has since said he is "proud to be Jewish" but "not actively involved in organized religion," has argued in recent weeks that "Israel has the right to go after Hamas" but must stop its "indiscriminate bombing."

In a statement on Saturday, Sanders reiterated his positions while also suggesting that Israel should have to meet certain conditions to receive any more U.S. military aid, including "a significant pause in military operations so that massive humanitarian assistance can come into the region" and "no long-term Israeli reoccupation or blockade of Gaza."

"The Netanyahu government, or hopefully a new Israeli government, must understand that not one penny will be coming to Israel from the U.S. unless there is a fundamental change in their military and political positions," the senator said.

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