Time for the US to change how it talks about Israel, congressman says

Jamaal Bowman's views reflect a change in how Democrats view the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Congressman Jamaal Bowman. Getty / AFP
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Washington must re-evaluate how it approaches its relationship with Israel to include far greater consideration of Palestinian issues, a US congressman has told The National.

For too long, the conversation around Israel has been "one-sided" and all but ignored critical realities such as the use of force against Palestinians, Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman said.

Mr Bowman's views are representative of a change in how Democrats view the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

A recent Gallup poll found that US Democrat voters now sympathise more with Palestinians than Israelis.

After 10 years in which that trend has increased, the survey showed 49 per cent sympathised with Palestinians and 38 per cent with Israelis.

Mr Bowman, 47, who represents New York, visited Israel and the West Bank in 2021 with the liberal pro-Israel group J Street.

The former school teacher said the trip “affirmed” his understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and aligned with the knowledge he had gained during his 2020 campaign and in discussions with various experts.

He spoke of Palestinian suffering from the Israeli occupation and said he “couldn't believe” what he saw in the West Bank.

“The extreme poverty, the wall surrounding the West Bank, the checkpoints that I couldn't even walk through myself being a member of the United States House of Representatives … how young were many of the soldiers at the checkpoints … the fact that the water supply in the West Bank was controlled by the Israeli government," Mr Bowman recalled.

"Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem have no rights."

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In 2020, Mr Bowman beat Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary for an area of New York that includes the Bronx and Westchester, bringing to an end Mr Engel's 32-year run in the US House of Representatives.

The former congressman had been a prominent advocate for Israel within his constituency, which includes the mainly Jewish neighbourhood of Riverdale.

During his visit to Israel and the West Bank, Mr Bowman also met former Israeli soldiers who told of how they would go into Palestinian homes unannounced and “terrorise” families "who have done nothing wrong”.

In March, Mr Bowman co-wrote a letter with Senator Bernie Sanders urging Washington to investigate whether Israel is using American weapons to commit human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act stipulate that US weapons can only be used for self-defence and not for abuse such as torture, extrajudicial killings and any other “flagrant denial” of “the right to life.”

Their letter called on Washington “ensure that all future foreign assistance to Israel, including weapons and equipment, is not used in support of gross violations of human rights.

It also urged the administration of President Joe Biden to respond with a “detailed plan” on how the US will ensure Israel cannot illegally misuse future aid.

Mr Bowman stressed that their intention was not to be antagonistic towards Israel, but to underscore the need for transparency and responsibility in how financial resources are allocated.

“The goal was to ask for an account how our funds are being used and emphasise that they should not be used for any human rights violations at all,” he said.

Mr Biden visited the West Bank last year and met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Bowman called for Mr Biden to spend more time there to gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation on the ground.

"That gesture would be incredibly powerful and begin to help us have an equitable conversation around what has been happening in the region because the conversation has been one-sided,” he said.

During his visit, Mr Bowman also met Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including former prime minister Naftali Bennett.

On Monday, the UN officially commemorated for the first time the Nakba, the word meaning “catastrophe” that Palestinians use to refer to Israel’s creation in 1948, when many Palestinians were driven from their homes and prevented from returning.

Mr Abbas, who attended the event, told UN member states that “the catastrophe to the Palestinian people is still continuing”.

He urged the world body to suspend Israel’s membership if it does not grant Palestinians a state and the right of return for millions of refugee descendants.

Mr Bowman welcomed the UN's marking of the Nakba.

"Hopefully, with the UN's recognition, we begin to have a more equitable, collective humanity conversation around what's happening in Israel/Palestine,” he said.

Mr Bowman said he strongly supported Israel's right to exist as a sovereign nation, and acknowledged the importance of its safety and security.

But he said those same principles should extend to the Palestinian people.

“Israel can exist as a country," Mr Bowman said. "Yes, it can defend itself, and of course, the safety and security of Israelis is really important. But the same thing must go for Palestinians."

He shared his frustration that the US media often seemed “unwilling to have a very honest, nuanced conversation” about Israel.

“The issue is fear,” Mr Bowman said.

He said any criticism towards the Israeli government was called anti-Semitism, stifling open discourse that could contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the situation.

Then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jamaal Bowman in March 2022. Getty / AFP
Updated: May 17, 2023, 2:30 AM

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