U.S. Rep. Becca Balint was among a contingent of lawmakers who traveled to Israel and Gaza recently.
Courtesy photo
U.S. Rep. Becca Balint was among a contingent of lawmakers who traveled to Israel and Gaza recently.

‘We felt like we have to see for ourselves what’s going on’

Balint joins five House colleagues in factfinding visit to Israel and Gaza

On Feb. 18, six Democratic members of Congress began a stealth six-day trip to Israel and Gaza in the midst of war. One of them was Vermont's lone representative, Rep, Becca Balint, D-Vt.

Balint and her colleagues favor a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine existing side by side as neighbors and economic partners. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu rejects such a solution.

The Times of Israel covered the trip by reporting, "Six U.S. House of Representatives Democrats returned from an Israel trip accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of 'utter disregard for Palestinian lives' and fearing that he is moving toward Gaza's 'total destruction.'"

Balint, who is Jewish and often talks about losing family in the Holocaust, could not help but be deeply moved by the trip.

"When you talk to people who have some connection with the Holocaust, either of their survival or of their family members who perished, and hear from them what Israel has meant for them in their lifetime, they thought there was a safe place," Balint told The Commons. "And they do absolutely understand this as a continuation of the kind of hatred of Jews that they saw in the Holocaust."

The Oct. 7, 2023 attacks by Hamas on Israel were not directed at the military. They were not directed at specific citizens on the ground. They were specifically directed at a string of villages where the "peaceniks" live - people who had been working toward a two-state solution for a very long time.

"Speak with the survivors, and they say, 'If they will come for us, they will come for anyone, and there's no way that we're safe,'" Balint said.

The peaceniks now feel a deep distrust of their own government, Balint said.

"There is a deep, deep feeling of betrayal," Balint said. "They were very clear that yes, they hold Hamas responsible for the attack and the horrors of it. But they also believe that Netanyahu has set the stage in so many ways for this to happen. And he promised that he would protect them."

Planned in advance

The Congressional trip was planned before Hamas's surprise attack on the Supernova Sukkot Gathering music festival in Israel, in which multiple women were raped, 364 people were killed, and 248 were taken hostage.

At the same time, Hamas attacked other locations in Israel with rockets and paragliders, seizing unprepared military bases and overrunning Israeli communities.

In retaliation, Israel has unleashed an all-out war against Palestinians that is estimated to have killed 31,000 people, including 94 journalists. Many more Palestinians are buried in the bombing rubble, and of those who are still living, starvation and human misery have reached a critical mass.

While the attack was truly a surprise and revealed unexpected vulnerabilities in Israeli defenses, the country's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been creating gulags for the Palestinian people for years and allowing right-wing Jewish religious extremists to build on Palestinian land.

The area has long been a powder keg. Balint and her five colleagues - Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the most senior Democrat on the House Appropriations committee; Mark Takano and Salud Carbajal of California; Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania; and Sean Casten of Illinois - had concerns for their safety when they decided to continue with their travel plans.

"I'll be perfectly honest," Balint said. "There were many of us who were concerned about our safety. But we felt like we have to see for ourselves what's going on, so we can make informed decisions going forward."

The legislators talked to people on all sides of the conflict.

"The level of trauma that Palestinians and Israelis are dealing with right now cannot be overstated," Balint said. "You have two peoples who feel that there is no place right now where they feel safe and secure.

"And talking with Palestinians in the West Bank, talking to Israelis who either lost family members in the attack or are waiting for hostages to come home, or the tens of thousands of Israelis who have been displaced because of Hezbollah in the north, you hear the same theme. Palestinians and Israelis, over and over and over again, say, 'I want a safe and secure place to raise my children and my grandchildren.'"

The representatives first met with people in "the Gaza envelope," which is the area attacked on Oct. 7.

"We went to meet with both survivors from the attacks in the kibbutzim and the family members," Balint said. "We also went to the site of the music festival, where hundreds of young people were killed. We saw rows and rows and rows of markers for all the dead from the young people that were slaughtered.

"And then that same day, which was really important for us to understand - again - the level of suffering and trauma, we went from that really intense morning to the West Bank to meet with Palestinians who had had their homes bulldozed by extremist Israeli settlers in the West Bank."

The representatives felt it was most important to hear from the people on the ground, directly, without social media or other filters, as well as from government officials.

"I heard people talk about what their life is like right now, and how we as Americans can actually make a positive difference," Balint said.

"We met with the Palestinian Authority. We met with members of the Knesset. We did not get to meet with Netanyahu directly. He canceled his meeting with us, but he sent Ron Dermer, an American-born Israeli political consultant who has been the Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs since 2022. They call him 'Bibi's Brain,' if that gives you any idea of where his politics lie. We were supposed to have a half-hour meeting with him. We stayed in there for two hours."

DeLauro was able to push back "in no uncertain terms" on Dermer's positions, Balint said.

"She was able to say that things will not continue to be as they are," Balint said.

The legislators met with Palestinian entrepreneurs and bankers.

"We also met with a woman who led the judicial reform protests," Balint said. "And we were able to ask her questions

Feeling trapped

Balint wants Vermonters to know that both sides of the conflict are trapped with "terrible, terrible leadership."

"We met with a pollster for the Israelis," Balint said. "And 75% to 80% of Israelis want Netanyahu gone. They hold him responsible for what happened."

The Israelis "don't want to be beholden to the extremists," she continued. "We also met with a Palestinian pollster. And in addition to that, you have a Palestinian Authority that has not been effective. And, of course, you have a terrorist organization in charge in Gaza."

For there to be a new Israeli government, one of three things has to happen.

The first would be the unlikely resignation of Netanyahu, who denies his unpopularity.

The second would be for the current government to fall. "In order for there to be a new governing coalition, members of the Cabinet would have to resign," Balint said. "The government would, essentially, fall and then they have to reconstitute another government."

In a twist, two hours before they left for Israel, the representatives were briefed that there was a chance the Israeli government might fall while they were there. In the end, of course, that didn't happen.

"But there are two factions that could still decide to leave the government," Balint said. "One is the extremist settler representatives. They are absolutely transparent about the fact that they want to wipe out the Palestinians and have control over the entire region." The "very distasteful, odious people" could leave if they feel like Netanyahu "is bowing too much to the Americans," she said.

But other, more moderate voices in the war cabinet are very, very frustrated with the way that Netanyahu is conducting this war. "There's a chance that they could resign," Balint said.

If either thing happens, the government will fail.

"The only other way they can bring about a new governing coalition is if Netanyahu decides to hold a snap election, which I don't anticipate him doing," Balint said.

"But the woman who led the judicial reform protests [Shikma Bressler] said that she anticipates that in the next month, you will see more and more of those activists take to the streets to call for him to resign," Balint said.

She said that Bressler has indicated that in the early stages of the war, "People felt like you have to - for lack of a better term - rally around the flag."

But now, Bressler has said "that the level of anger and frustration with Netanyahu was so high she anticipates that those protests are going to take to the streets again," Balint said.

The representatives were surprised by the confidence that people in the war-torn area have placed in President Joe Biden.

"What we've heard over and over again was the sense that President Biden is the player on the world stage who could help to convene the partners necessary to bring about the two-state solution," Balint said. "People in Jordan and Egypt, the Saudis and the Emirates, they have confidence in the president's willingness and commitment to really use Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Ambassador to Israel Jacob Lew to finally bring about this two-state solution that has been elusive for so long."

Trying to get through

The representatives did get to share their concerns with other members of Netanyahu's government.

"We were able to, in real time, meet with them to say, 'We see what you have been doing is shameful - being unwilling to allow the level of humanity and services that are needed to get into Gaza,'" Balint said.

"Some of the stories that I heard are just too, too horrible and too graphic. One thing we heard from an American who works on the ground in Gaza is that they're doing cesarean sections without any kind of anesthesia right now. Amputations are happening without painkillers or anesthesia. People are starving. Children are starving."

Making matters even worse, each side is being fed its own propaganda, Balint said.

"Folks in Gaza and the West Bank in Israel are in their own bubble of news," Balint said. "So there isn't a real understanding of the level of suffering on both sides."

Balint is calling for "better leadership."

"We need President Biden to continue what he did at the State of the Union [

Air drops of humanitarian aid have not been sufficient to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians. Now the United States is setting up a temporary port to allow a higher level of humanitarian aid to be unloaded and distributed.

"It is clear that we can't trust Netanyahu to do it," Balint said. "So one ship, delivering to that floating dock, would bring 1,200 trucks worth of goods."

"And that was consistent with what we heard from humanitarian aid organizations on the ground: 'We need at least 500 trucks a day to get into Gaza with supplies.' We are able, with one ship, to bring 1,200 trucks at a time. That's the level of support we need," she continued.

"So to have the president say at the State of the Union that we're doing this was a clear, forceful signal to Netanyahu. We're not putting up with him."

The geopolitics of the trip, Balint said, let her come away feeling that there was much to be hopeful about.

"Israel is an economic powerhouse in the Middle East," Balint said. "And one of the catalysts for this attack on Oct. 7 was the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia were about to normalize relations. There had been a buildup, and it seemed like the announcement was fairly imminent.

"Hamas, in connection with Iran, absolutely did not want the Saudi Arabians to normalize relationships with Israel. They wanted to prevent a sort of a realignment in the Middle East. If the Saudis did that, then others would follow. And the Saudis are still saying, 'We still want to do that. And we want to bring other Middle Eastern partners to the table to also normalize relationships. There is an incredible amount of technology that [can benefit us] from Israel, with their big trading partners. We have the opportunity to raise the standard of living for people across the region.'"

Balint often heard the same thing from the Palestinians in the West Bank.

"These are people who are really looking to the future for their kids or grandkids," Balint said. "They say, 'Yes, what we want is to have a partner side by side that we can have strong economic ties to. We know, essentially, we want our economies intertwined because that will raise the level of safety and security simultaneously.'"

This will not happen in the near future, Balint admitted. But the goal would be to build a foundation for it.

That makes the upcoming presidential election very important, she said.

"If you care deeply about the state of Israel, as I do, if you care deeply about the Palestinians, as I do, we know now that it's going to be a rematch of Biden and Trump," Balint said. "That's basically been settled. Biden is the one who is working behind the scenes to get a ceasefire now, to get the hostages home, and is simultaneously working towards a two-state solution. Trump is not at all interested in guaranteeing safety and security for both Palestinians and Israel."

"Netanyahu wants to be able to deal with Trump," Balint continued. "And the extremists in the West Bank, the Israeli settlers, want Trump to win. And so the stakes are incredibly high."

Hope amid the ruins

Even in turmoil, Balint came away from the trip feeling hopeful.

"The six of us [...] saw some horrible, painful, traumatizing things,” Balint said. “And yet, we all left feeling hopeful. So I’m going to hold on to that right now. And I’m going to continue to do everything that I can to encourage the president and the vice president — through all of our channels — to continue what they’re doing. The folks in the region see that they are trying to hold both these people safe and get the region to a better place.”

Upon return, the six lawmakers issued a five-part declaration demanding:

• An immediate end to violence in Gaza and the West Bank;

• Humanitarian aid and security for refugees;

• A "Day After" Plan that includes reforms to strengthen the Palestinian Authority so it can represent the Palestinian people and a Palestinian state...including new leadership;

• Increased efforts by the U.S. and Israel to bring an end to settler violence; and

• The promotion of long-term regional stability.

The trip was "very rich," Balint said. "We worked from about eight in the morning till about 10 o'clock every night, out among the people and the policymakers. We were able to represent Congress, and also to be able to convey to our colleagues back here what's going on on the ground right now.

"We are the members of Congress who have now spent the most time in Israel and in the Palestinian territories since the war broke out. We have important information to get to our colleagues."

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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