Palestine on Capitol Hill-where exactly?

Palestinian human rights advocates have written off the U.S. Congress as an agent for positive change in the lives of Palestinians. Rightly so, advocates for Palestinian human rights have been disillusioned by the deluge of biased legislation and the incessant waves of military aid provided to Israel. However, dismissing Congress is not an option. Although grassroots, media, and legal activism can tarnish the U.S.’s foreign policy in the Middle East, such admirable efforts cannot change it. To the contrary, Congress can reverse the gains made by advocates in one fell swoop. Harvesting the gains of grassroots, media, and legal advocacy will require a complementary legislative strategy.

 Presently, that strategy is non-existent and its non-existence is evidenced by the invisibility of Palestine on Capitol Hill. Whatever mention is made of Palestine in the Halls of Congress is made in relation to Syria and Iran’s looming threat and/or to Israel’s security. (1)

Congress and Foreign Policy

The domain of the Executive Branch seems, particularly of late, to exercise exclusive control over U.S. foreign policy. However, through its “power of the purse,” or ultimate control of the national budget, Congress exerts its influence on the President’s foreign policy agenda. As the overseer of the national budget, Congress has the ability to end wars as it did in Vietnam in 1973, (2) to support reconstruction as it did in Europe post-WWII,(3) and to impose sanctions on other states as it did on the South African Apartheid regime in 1985.(4) Unlike the Executive Branch, Congress is a site of political practice, one that is responsive to political upheaval and sustained resistance.

Congress’s role in the Israel/Palestinian conflict has been no less distinguished as it provides uncritical and overwhelming support for Israel. This unconditional support for an internationally recognized occupying power has made Israel the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since 1976 and the largest cumulative recipient since World War II.(5) The U.S. renewed its financial support for Israel, which has been critical to that state’s survival since the mid-1970s when it could no longer meet its balance of payments without borrowed capital. On August 16, 2007, the United States and Israel signed a ten year Memorandum of Understanding for 30 billion dollars of U.S. military aid to Israel, which signifiesa25percentincreasefromthepre-existing24 billion dollar package.(6) According to the U.S. State Department, this increase is meant to maintain Israel’s military edge in the Middle East.(7)

The aid will be subject to Congressional approval each year but opposition in its halls is unlikely. Congress has never disapproved aid appropriated for Israel and when Congress has reduced Israel’s aid package, the reduction has been unrelated to Israel’s devastating human rights record.(8) U.S. statutes including P.L. 102-391 and 108-11, which prohibit the use of U.S. aid in the occupied Palestinian territory including East Jerusalem, and the Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits the use of aid in violation of human rights, condition the granting of aid to Israel. However, because aid to Israel is given as direct government to government budgetary support without any specific project accounting and because money is fungible, there is no way to prove that aid was used in violation of the AECA, P.L 102-391 or 108-11.(9) This suggests that were aid granted to Israel better defined and more concrete, objections over its use in the Occupied Territories or in violation of human rights could be made.

The absence of controversy over Israel’s human rights abuses in Congress reflects the virtual invisibility of the question of Palestine on Capitol Hill. Its invisibility is not simply attributed to Palestine’s marginal contribution to the U.S.’s geopolitical interests in the region, but also because there is no concerted legislative effort made on its behalf. For that reason, on the Hill, Palestinians are defined and spoken of by association; on the one hand fuelling Syria and Iran’s broader regional “threats” and on the other endangering Israel’s security.

Palestine as told through Syria and Iran

Especially since the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq, Syria and Iran have figured centrally on the U.S.’s Middle East agenda. In his opening statement at a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, ranking member Senator Richard Lugar said:

Developing a broader Middle East strategy is all the more urgent given that our intervention in Iraq has fundamentally changed the power balance in the region. In particular, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni government opened up opportunities for Iran to seek much greater influence in Iraq. An Iran that is bolstered by an alliance with a Shiite government in Iraq or a separate Shiite state in southern Iraq would pose serious challenges for Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, and other Arab governments. Iran is pressing a broad agenda in the Middle East with uncertain consequences for weapons proliferation, terrorism, the security of Israel, and other U.S. interests. Any course we adopt in Iraq should consider how it would impact the regional influence of Iran.(10)

Like Iran, Congress admonishes Syria for its role in destabilizing Iraq. (11) And like Iran, Congress considers Syria one of the most notorious state sponsors of terror. (12) Disdain for Syria and Iran as sponsors of terror, threats to Israel, and in Iran’s case a looming nuclear power ran rampant among Congress long before the invasion of Iraq.

In 2003, Senators Barbara Boxer and Rick Santorum introduced Syria Accountability Act (S. 982), which Congress quickly passed. Among other things, the bill sought to halt Syrian support for terror. The legislation called on Syria to halt this support by closing the offices of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in Damascus. The aforementioned groups are deemed a threat to Israel and to the region’s stability.(13)

In early August 2007, Representative Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, introduced The Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which authorizes state and local governments to divest from companies doing business in Iran’s energy sector and gives legal protections to pension funds and mutual fund managers who choose to divest.(14) Representative Frank’s bill is only one of many measures that aim to freeze Iran’s nuclear energy program and its sponsorship of groups on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.(15) Lobbyists supporting such measures cite Iran’s threat to ‘wipe Israel off the map,’ as their primary motivation.(16)

Hezbollah and “a wide array of Palestinian terrorist groups” figure as the primary benefactors of Iranian and Syrian sponsorship of terror. (17) Consequently, Congress often mentions Palestinians in this context—as irrational actors motivated by hate and enabled by Syria and Iran. As described by Representative Gary Ackerman, chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, in the face of a humanitarian crisis in May 2007 Hamas “still has one strategy. It is: ‘Don’t just stand there. Kill some Jews.’”(18)

Congress targets Palestinians as extensions of Syria and Iran primarily by highlighting Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. U.S. politicians whether in Congress or outside of it effectively draw a distinction between such Islamic groups and the rest of Palestine’s “civilized” and “moderate” population.

In a Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia hearing entitled U.S. Assistance to the Palestinians, Chairman Ackerman asks, “What do we do to promote and encourage the ascendancy of precisely the kind of Palestinians…, people that are interested in civilization, people that are interested in the well-being of their neighbours, and in their family, and in security? Let me just ask that very broad question, are there Palestinian moderates? And if there are some, how do we get more of them?” (19)

Chairman Ackerman’s and his colleagues are inevitably in consensus when they answer such questions. They locate the moderates among non-Islamic political groups and non-Islamic leaders. Mahmoud Abbas is perhaps the penultimate of the “moderate Arab” who “espouse[s] negotiation and co-existence.”(20) Although Abbas was elected President in 2005, Congress did not exalt him as a model Arab or Palestinian until the popular election of Hamas. Prior to Hamas’s electoral victory, Abu Mazen’s legacy on the Hill was as an ineffectual leader with a corrupt and unaccountable Cabinet. This theme of the “good Palestinian” versus the “bad Palestinian” became explicit only when it became clear that defeating Hamas would necessitate bolstering an alternative Palestinian leadership. The consideration and redress of grievances common to all Palestinians caused by Israeli occupation and apartheid policies was not an option. Instead, Congress deemed those who accepted Israel’s behaviour in moderated doses “good” and those who rejected it all together “bad.” Meanwhile, Congress continues to perpetuate the myth of Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East.”

Palestine as told through Israel

The Israeli narrative of a threatened, beleaguered nation in a sea of hostile Arabs – so central to its self-definition since its inception–continues to hold incredible sway in Congress, even as Israelis themselves question the limits of such a narrative. The conspicuous absence of Israel’s culpability in modern Middle Eastern conflicts is the clearest example of Israel’s unquestioned status as a threatened entity, despite the fact that it is, indeed, the only nuclear power in the Middle East. During the most recent of such conflicts, Israel’s war against Lebanon in the Summer of 2006, Congress blamed Hizbollah for Lebanon’s destruction and civilian casualties.(21)

Congress’s conception of Israel as beyond culpability also determines how Congresspersons tell the very story of Palestine and Palestinians. In the context of Syria and Iran, Palestinians are either good or bad. When the perspective shifts to the narrative of Israel, Palestinians become the hapless victims of their own design.

Congress is not unfamiliar with the history of Israel’s establishment on historic Palestine and the displacement of Palestinian refugees, a refugee population that numbers approximately 7 million people today. In the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia hearing, Two Sides of the Same Coin: Jewish and Palestinian Refugees, Chairman Ackerman begins in his opening statement by stating:

For Palestinians the refugee question more than any other embodies their cause. It carries the weight of their dispossession, collective anger against Israel, their frustration with the inability of their leaders to resolve national crises, and their sense of abandonment by the world despite the reality that millions of Palestinian refugees daily receive services from UNRWA…For Palestinians the refugee question connects 1948 to 1967 to 2007 and an unbroken string of tragedy.

Chairman Ackerman tempers his unfettered rendition of the Palestinian narrative with the primary concern of securing Israel as a Jewish state. Rep. Ackerman goes onto say, “For Israelis…the implications of demography, make Palestinian demands concerning refugees sound not like calls for justice, but calls for suicide.”(22) Rep. Ackerman reconciles his description of Palestinian loss by equating it to the loss of Middle Eastern Jewish refugees. He then admonishes Arab states for failing to absorb the Palestinian refugee population as Israel did with Middle Eastern Jews and as other nations have done with their refugees. Effectively, the problem is not the expulsion of Palestinians but their persona non grata status in their host countries.

Rep. Ackerman asks witness Dr. Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, “I have a question, are they considered inferior human beings?” In response to the Congressman’s constant refrain, Dr. Telhami tries to discuss issues of responsibility for refugee populations to which Rep. Ackerman snaps, “Inasmuch as you have opened the issue of responsibility, it seems to some that in 1948 after the civilized world through the United Nations created Israel a state it was attacked by the Arab world, creating all these refugees that fled to the countries that attacked Israel. So they bear the responsibility in the minds of many, including myself, for initiating the action that created the refugees in the first place. That is that for responsibility. Now that these refugees are located in so many of these countries and treated as not even second class citizens because they are not citizens at all, I will come back to my question, are they inferior human beings?” Rep. Ackerman answers his own question when he says, “…they are held in that status to be used as political pawns.”(23)

The solution, Rep. Ackerman concludes, is not to “coerce someone in love out of it,” (Palestinian refugees longing for return) but to tempt them by “another offer, especially one that is more attractive and available,” (settling in an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel or resettle in a third country).

The notion that Arab and Palestinian leaders are to blame for Palestinian suffering, while Israel is not at all culpable, is a pervasive theme. In a hearing on US Assistance to the Palestinians, minority ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, Rep. Mike Pence explains that “this vexing condition has plagued the Palestinians for some time now. Some of their leaders would rather wage war on each other and Israel than have a society where basic rights and freedoms are protected. Somewhere between autocracy and Islamism certainly there must be a renewed Arab civilization waiting to emerge.”(24) Whereas Rep. Ackerman blames the Arabs for political duplicity, Rep. Pence points to the lack of “civilization.” Both Congressmen share the central perception; Israeli policies are unrelated to the Palestinian refugee situation, the fault lies with the Arabs and the Palestinians themselves. Read top facts about young youtube star Tana Mongeau - website:

Thus, on the one hand, Congress pities Palestinians and takes the posture of bestowing nominal forms of humanitarian relief. On the other hand, Congress impedes Palestinian self-determination at every turn, pushing for “human rights” in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt while denying the very possibility of human and political rights in Israel/Palestine. Hence, the President’s agenda for establishing a solution based on two-states side-by-side begins and ends with security for Israel.(25)

So where is Palestine on the Hill?

Palestinians on Capitol Hill are somewhere between Israel on the one hand and Syria and Iran on the other. In both uncertain locations, Palestinians and Palestine are derivative actors. For the issue of Palestine as a player to emerge as an active agent, a highly improbable goal at this political juncture, activists must pierce Israel’s impeccable shield. This piercing requires concerted attention to congressional advocacy.

U.S.-based advocates are disillusioned with the U.S. government and its potential to be a conduit for change. However, circumventing the politics of Congress and the U.S. Administration will bear only ephemeral gains. The recent failure of litigation strategies demonstrates this much.

U.S. federal courts dismissed Corrie, et. al. v. Caterpillar, a class action law suit against Caterpillar bulldozers for civil money damages on counts of wrongful death, racketeering, and crimes against humanity among other charges, on political grounds. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that despite the plaintiffs’ evidence against Caterpillar, the case was non-justiciable because the U.S. government paid for Caterpillar sales to Israel.The U.S. Administration’s implication in the alleged violations thus renders the case non-justiciable. The evidentiary and legal strength of Corrie’s claim is undermined by U.S. statute and case law which prohibits judicial intervention in matters subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the executive. Adjudicating Corrie’s claim on its merits requires a political shift or a legislative amendment.

Congressional intervention even works to limit the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement in the U.S. Any potential success for the BDS movement can be easily reversed by legislation deeming such economic measures illegal. Success on the BDS front necessitates at the very least Congressional neutrality. At present, Congress is so biased, that achieving its neutrality could in fact be a victory.

Dismissing the role of Congress in the furthering of Palestinian human rights is short-sighted and ineffective. Focusing exclusively on Congressional advocacy is no better. Success on the Hill is contingent on the strength of grassroots, media, and legal advocacy. Effecting change in Middle East foreign policy and in the lives of Palestinians requires the careful balance and coordination of these complimentary strategies.


Noura Erakat is a former New Voices Fellow. As a fellow she worked with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation as their National Grassroots Organizer and Legal Advocate. She is presently a resident scholar at Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and working as Counsel for the Oversight and Government Reform Domestic Policy Subcommittee in the House of Representatives.


(1) To assess the status of Palestine on the Hill, I chose to examine the hearings held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. I also examined magazines circulated on a weekly or daily basis to all Hill staffers to gain a better sense of attitudes towards Palestine on the Hill.

(2) Congress limited the use of funds that would directly or indirectly support combat activities in the region.

(3) The Marshall plan, or “The Economic Cooperation Act of 1948” was agreed to by a vote of 329 to 74.

(4) Legislation to increase economic sanctions against Apartheid South Africa was enacted over President Reagan’s veto.

(5) Mark, Clyde R. Israel: U.S. Foreign Assistance, Congressional Research Services, Last updated April 26, 2005.

(6) Keinon, Herb, Israel, US try to maintain military edge, Jerusalem Post, August 16, 2007 available at

(7) Id.

(8) Id. In 2004, Congress reduced Israel’s aid package by 0.59% without any notable citation.

(9) Mark at IB85066, There were reports in February 2001 and the summer 2002, that the U.S. government was investigating the use of Apache and Cobra helicopters to conduct targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders.

(10) Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “Hearing on Regional Diplomatic Strategy in Iraq,” Opening statement for Senator Richard Lugar. January 17, 2007.

(11) Robinson, Linda, Reaching Out to Iran and Syria, National Journal September 29, 2007.

(12) Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “The Changing Face of Terror: A Post 9/11 Assessment” Testimony of Ambassador Henry A. Crumpton, Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State. June 13, 2006.

(13) Syria Accountability Act of 2003, (S. 982). The Act makes one specific reference to the impact of Syria’s support, namely that as a result of Syria’s continued occupation of Lebanon, “much of southern Lebanon is under the control of Hizbollah, which continues to attack Israeli positions and allows Iranian Revolutionary Guards and other militant groups to operate freely in the area, destabilizing the entire region.”

(14) Kosterlitz, Julie, Squeezing Iran, National Journal, September 1, 2007: 23.

(15) Graham-Silverman, Adam, “With Sanctions Legislation, House, Senate Continue Tough Talk Against Iran,” CQ Today September 26, 2007. Representative Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced what is considered the toughest bills in a series of such measures. HR 1400 which had 326 co-sponsors and passed by a vote of 379-16 would ban all imports from Iran and expands curbs on exports. The Senate has its own bill that would impose criminal penalties of up to $1 million and a jail term of twenty years on companies doing business with Iran.

(16) Kosterlitz, Julie, Squeezing Iran, National Journal, September 1, 2007: 23.

(17) Testimony of Ambassador Henry A. Crumpton supra at note 12.

(18) Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, Committee on Foreign Affairs House of Representatives, Hearing on “U.S. Assistance to the Palestinians,” May 23, 2007.

(19) Id. Question asked by Representative Gary Ackerman, May 23, 2007: 22.

(20) Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearing on Lebanon, Opening statement of Senator Richard Lugar, September 13, 2006.

(21) Id. During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Lebanon, Senator Lugar expressed that the hearing’s purpose was to “assess whether Hezbollah and its Secretary General, Hasan Nasrallah, gained popularity in the region notwithstanding the suffering they brought on the Lebanese people.” Not only does Senator Lugar’s statement absolve Israel of any responsibility for the harm caused to Lebanon and its people but it also treats Hezbollah as an alien element to Lebanon.

(22) Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Hearing Two Sides of the Same Coin: Jewish and Palestinian Refugees, May 8, 2007.

(23) Id.

(24) Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, Committee on Foreign Affairs House of Representatives, Hearing on “U.S. Assistance to the Palestinians,” May 23, 2007. Representative Mike Pence (D-IN).

(25) Id. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, US Security Coordinator to Israel and the Occupied Territories on President Bush’s 3 goals for establishing two states side by side:

4. Improving the security at the Gaza crossings, particularly at Karni crossing, to advance the goals of the Agreement on the Movement and Access and boost Palestinian economic development while addressing Israeli security concerns;

5. Improving the capabilities of the Abbas-controlled Presidential Guard to help them protect the President and VIPs, manage security at the crossings, and respond to urgent security situations;

6. Working with the Office of the President to establish a capacity for security service oversight, reform, and strategic planning.