Empty words, deadly bombs

Senator Chris Van Hollen gesticulates

Senator Chris Van Hollen has noted starvation in Gaza, but still voted for further military aid to Israel.


Nearly 20 years ago, I ran into then-Congressman Chris Van Hollen in a grocery store just south of American University in Washington, DC. Ghada Ageel, my former Arabic teacher in Gaza, then on a US speaking tour, was with me.

I introduced them and, as I recall, we had a brief conversation about Gaza and the lack of freedom for Palestinians. He listened intently and then went on his way.

Van Hollen, now a US senator representing the state of Maryland, has every reason to understand Palestinians’ oppression at the hands of Israel and the US. He was born in Pakistan and spent part of his early life there and in Turkey, India and Sri Lanka. His parents worked in ambassadorial roles, the State Department and CIA so it’s difficult to know exactly what they conveyed, but he did attend Swarthmore College, a Quaker school in Pennsylvania.

Yet too frequently when US politicians appear willing to stand up for Palestinian rights, they turn around and undercut Palestinians.

Van Hollen is among their number, quite possibly among the worst of the supposed friends. He didn’t simply undercut Palestinians with a recent vote, but gave a helping hand to Israeli leaders he acknowledges are war criminals.

How did this develop?

Earlier this week, Van Hollen gave a powerful speech railing against the starvation now taking root in the Gaza Strip.

But when Van Hollen got near the end of his powerful indictment of Israel’s actions, he said that he nonetheless would be voting for the package of further military aid to Israel and Ukraine.

Speaking for more than 23 minutes, Van Hollen expressed dismay that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and what he termed as Blinken’s call for the prime minister “not to launch a major military operation against Rafah” in southern Gaza.
Van Hollen said he texted UN World Food Program head Cindy McCain on the starvation affecting Gaza. She responded: “This is true. We are unable to get in enough food to keep people from the brink.”
The senator also explicitly acknowledged Israeli war crimes and war criminals.

“Kids in Gaza are now dying from the deliberate withholding of food. In addition to the horror of that news, one other thing is true. That is a war crime. It is,” his voice cracking with emotion, “a textbook war crime. And that makes those who orchestrate it, war criminals.”

Then he asked, “So now the question is what will the United States do? What will we do? What will President Biden do? President Biden must take action in response to what is happening.”

President Biden must take action, according to Van Hollen, but having raised the alarm, Van Hollen seems to think he’s done his job. In the end, he voted for $14.1 billion more in military aid to Israel and no aid via UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

Unnervingly, a Republican trifecta of incompetence, xenophobia and discord in the House of Representatives remains the best hope for stopping – or slowing – additional military aid to Israel, though Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries made clear the position of most Democrats when he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday that “we stand with Israel.” Jeffries also said that “the overwhelming amount of Democrats and a significant number of Republicans” would “support the national security legislation.”

With friends like Van Hollen, who needs enemies? The message is: Don’t starve them, bomb them. Feed them, but not with the assistance of the largest, most efficient group, UNRWA, doing so for decades.

And what of Ghada Ageel with whom Van Hollen spoke in the grocery store nearly 20 years ago? How does he look her in the eye when dozens of her family members have been killed with US weapons employed by people Van Hollen knows to be war criminals?

He doesn’t. He can’t. Van Hollen came to a moral crossing and chose more arms for a country he admits is led by what he called war criminals.

Words and no action

President Joe Biden, urged by Van Hollen to take action, provides no recourse. He is behaving in much the same manner as Van Hollen himself – words and no action.

Biden admitted weeks ago that Israel is engaged in “indiscriminate bombing” and more recently said the Israeli response has been “over the top.” Nevertheless, he is all for further military aid to the apartheid state.

On Sunday morning, Biden reiterated his view that “a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there.”

That night, during what’s being called the Super Bowl massacre, Israel carried out “diversionary” attacks on Rafah that killed scores of Palestinians, including 19 children according to Palestinian human rights organizations, while extracting two Israeli-Argentine men from the southernmost town in Gaza.

The next day, alongside Jordan’s King Abdullah, Biden referred to “our military operation in Rafah,” before correcting himself to say “the military operation in Rafah.” It was yet another Biden gaffe, though it recalled the old Washington saying that “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.”

In addition on Monday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, also assistant to the president, was asked whether Biden had considered stripping military aid to Israel if that country moved ahead with a military attack on Rafah that didn’t take into account civilians.

Kirby replied, “We’re going to continue to support Israel. They have a right to defend themselves against Hamas and we’re gonna continue to make sure they have the tools and the capabilities to do that.”

That’s another bright green light from the Biden administration for Israel to commit further war crimes.


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Michael F. Brown

Michael F. Brown is an independent journalist. His work and views have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, TheNation.com, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The News & Observer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and elsewhere.