- Written by Senator Jeff Merkley Senator Jeff Merkley
- Published: 21 November 2023 21 November 2023
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley today released the following statement regarding the Israel-Hamas war.
In his statement, the Senator calls for a ceasefire, to include the immediate cessation of hostilities by both sides. He also notes that a ceasefire will not endure unless the ceasefire and the negotiations that follow accomplish a number of objectives, including the release of all hostages and a massive influx of humanitarian aid.
On my first trip to Israel in 1978, the energy for building a new nation was infectious and peace with Egypt was on the horizon. I was all in on America standing squarely with this new nation perched on a small sliver of land surrounded by hostile neighbors. I concluded that Israel would become a powerful and powerfully just nation.
Israel has succeeded in building that powerful nation I envisioned. Citizens planted forests, mastered maximum agricultural yields with minimum water, rebuilt their cities, and became the start-up nation full of entrepreneurs flexing their engineering and computer skills. At the same time, they established a military security system that has been the envy of the world.
Israel has faltered, however, in the just exercise of that power in the context of its occupation of the West Bank. Many in Israel’s leadership, including champions like Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, pursued the vision of a future Palestinian state. But a different vision has been set through acts on the ground: One settlement followed another. Then another checkpoint, another outpost, another road for settlers, another house demolition, another olive orchard bulldozed. This was de facto annexation, year after year. And all substantially in violation of international law.
When I returned to Israel for the fifth time earlier this year, the pace of oppression had increased. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had formed a government with Bezalel Smotrich as Minister of Finance and Itamar Ben-Gvir as Minister of National Security. Smotrich has said that the Palestinian people do not exist and called for a Palestinian town to be erased. Ben-Gvir had kept a portrait in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli-American terrorist who slaughtered 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers and wounded 125 others in the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. Israel’s far-right extremists were now helping to drive Israeli government policy.
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). Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA), which had worked closely with the IDF to prevent violence by Palestinians, was losing its legitimacy. Without progress toward a plan for a future Palestinian state, the Palestinian people have increasingly seen the PA’s security cooperation with Israel not as an essential element for a better future, but as collaboration with an oppressive occupier.
By the time of my visit, Netanyahu himself was singing a different tune. He no longer talked about a two-state solution as the only feasible future for Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, he talked about restricting Palestinians in the West Bank to enclaves amidst the expansion of settlements and the possibility of official annexation of the West Bank. And he was leading an aggressive effort to trim the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court so it could not interfere with the plans of his far-right coalition, an effort that was generating heated debate and massive opposition demonstrations.
Then came the horrific October 7th Hamas terrorist attack on Israeli communities with the slaughter of about 1,200 Israeli men, women, and children and the abduction of about 240 hostages, including Americans. The whole world was with Israel. President Biden flew to Israel and greeted Netanyahu with an emotional and heartfelt embrace. We remembered our own 9/11 and grieved with Israelis. 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. Cindy McCain, the Director of the World Food Program, is warning that “civilians are facing the immediate possibility of starvation.” Hospitals are left operating without basic medical supplies or even enough fuel to keep incubators and ventilators operating. The United Nations warns that the lack of clean water risks a devastating outbreak of disease. To help address all this, Israel could facilitate a massive influx of supplies through the Kerem Shalom gate, the main entry point for supplies before October 7th, but has refused to do so.
In addition, 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. Air strikes 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. Gaza’s Ministry of Health, which has produced largely reliable casualty numbers in past conflicts that have been cited by the State Department, estimates that more than 12,000 Palestinians in Gaza have died. More than 4,000 children have been killed and thousands more are missing, many crushed in collapsing buildings. More than 28,000 Palestinians have been injured, and almost 1.6 million out of Gaza’s 2.2 million people have been displaced.
When nations are attacked, their rage-fueled responses can include massive mistakes. That was certainly true for America after 9/11. Instead of going after terrorist training camps, we occupied Afghanistan and went to war in Iraq over non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.” The cost in blood and treasure was huge, and we managed to magnify the power of both Iran and its proxies.
I believe that Israel, in its understandable rage, is also making a massive mistake. By waging a war that generates a shocking level of civilian carnage rather than a targeted campaign against Hamas, Israel is burning through its reserves of international support. 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. When all is taken into account, this war may decrease rather than increase Israel’s security.
The international community is asking critical questions: Will Israel allow Palestinians to return to their homes in Gaza after the war? Who will rebuild Gaza and who will manage it? And most importantly, how do we end the cycle of hate and violence and create a path to peace and prosperity?
I have called for humanitarian pauses to facilitate negotiations for the release of hostages, the movement of Palestinians in Gaza to identified safe zones, the departure of foreign citizens who wish to leave, and the massive distribution of food, water, medicine, and fuel by accredited international aid organizations for essential purposes like water desalination, ambulances, and hospitals. Israel has now acceded to a pause of four hours a day, but weeks—not hours—are needed to accomplish these objectives.
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 ceasefire.
The ceasefire requires an immediate cessation of military hostilities by both sides. But the ceasefire and the negotiations that follow must accomplish a number of objectives or it will not endure. Hamas must release all the hostages without conditions and lay down their arms. And Hamas, which continues to defend the savage slaughter of Israeli citizens on October 7th and advocate for the obliteration of Israel, has to go. It can no longer have operational control of Gaza.
Israel must end its bombing and shelling and also address the immediate humanitarian challenge. Israel should open the Kerem Shalom gate and flood Gaza with humanitarian aid—so no more children die from a failed incubator, bad water, or hunger—and facilitate the passage of injured civilians in Gaza to hospitals in the West Bank.
And to start on the path to a more just future, Israel should declare the right of displaced Palestinians to return to their homes in Gaza, put an immediate end to new settlements in the West Bank, and end the settlers’ violence against Palestinian villagers.
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.
By doing these things, Israel will move towards fulfilling the vision I had on my first visit in 1978, of becoming not only powerful, but powerfully just.
Senator Jeff Merkley represents Oregon in the United States Senate and serves as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.