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Senator Jeff Merkley: U.S. “Complicit in Starvation and Humanitarian Catastrophe” in Gaza

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As over 100 Palestinians are killed by Israeli forces while gathering for food aid in Gaza City, we speak to Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who in November became the second of only five U.S. senators to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. In January, he traveled to the Rafah border crossing in Egypt to witness the system of humanitarian aid deliveries, which he described on the Senate floor as a “complicated, bizarre inspection process.” Merkley is now calling for the U.S. to bypass Israel in order to directly send aid to Gaza. Because of the United States’ relationship to Israel — “more closely tied than any situation in the world” — Merkley says, “It’s the United States that has leverage to address this situation, and the world expects us to take the lead.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Scores of Palestinians were killed and 760 injured early Thursday after Israeli troops opened fire on a large crowd waiting for deliveries of food in Gaza City. At the time of this broadcast, the death toll stands at 104, with the number expected to rise, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, which said the attack, quote, “constituted a new phase in the genocide.”

Hundreds of Palestinians had gathered on a major street where aid trucks carrying flour were due to arrive, when Israeli forces opened fire from tanks and drones. The wounded have been taken to four hospitals in the area, all of which are largely nonfunctioning, with no electricity or medical supplies.

The death toll in Gaza has now crossed 30,000, according to the Health Ministry, with thousands more missing and presumed dead. Over 70,000 have been wounded.

Among the worst-affected areas in Gaza is the north, where aid has barely been delivered in months. One official with the World Health Organization told Reuters that any aid deliveries that do come through are mobbed by desperate people who are visibly starving with sunken eyes. On Wednesday, top U.N. officials told the Security Council over half a million people in Gaza are on the cusp of starvation, while virtually the entire population of 2.3 million people is in desperate need of food.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re joined by Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon. In November, he became only the second senator to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. In January, Senator Merkley traveled to the Rafah border crossing in Egypt to witness the system of humanitarian aid deliveries. Senator Merkley is co-author of the new book Filibustered!: How to Fix the Broken Senate and Save America.

Before we speak to the senator, let’s turn to a clip of his address on the Senator floor in early February about the humanitarian truck inspections at the Rafah border crossing.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Israel has set up a very complicated system to inspect the trucks beforehand. They had such an inspection system before October 7th, and they were able to inspect and allow 500 trucks a day to enter. But they’ve set up a convoluted system now that Senator Van Hollen and I witnessed at Rafah crossing, where truck drivers, after loading up their supplies, often wait up to a week to get permission to pass into Gaza — a week.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon joins us now from Washington, D.C.

Senator, welcome to Democracy Now!

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Well, thank you so much. Very good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: You are the second senator to call for a ceasefire, this after last week — though you called for it before — the U.S. once again vetoed a ceasefire resolution at the United Nations. We just had reports today that you heard about Israeli troops opening fire, through tanks, guns, drones, on people desperate for aid, killing more than a hundred, perhaps wounding more than 700. Can you talk about the situation right now and what you feel needs to happen?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Well, the situation is a cascade of catastrophes. It is lack of food, it’s lack of clean water, it’s lack of shelter, it’s lack of power, it’s lack of communications — all while bombs and artillery shells keep falling. The seasoned humanitarian aid workers that I met with at Rafah gate and in Egypt and in Jordan said they have been in the worst conflict zones in the world, places like the frontline of Ukraine, places like Yemen and Somalia, and that nothing compares to the combination of tragedies that are simultaneously occurring in Gaza. The humanitarian situation is horrific.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Senator Merkley, despite what you say, of course, there are still only five senators who are calling for a ceasefire. What’s your message to them?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: My message is that we have to look with open eyes, because — because that’s what we do with every humanitarian situation around the world, whether it’s in Burma, whether it’s with people being enslaved in China or the way China is treating Tibetans. In this case, it happens to be occurring in the context of our work with an ally, with Israel. But that means we can’t just look away and pretend it’s not happening. We have to recognize we, the United States, are so closely tied, more closely tied than any situation in the world, because of our military aid to Israel, our resupply of bombs and artillery shells during the war, our very close consultation and intelligence sharings. For all these reasons, it’s the United States that has leverage to address this situation, and the world expects us to take the lead and to act in a much more bold and aggressive way than we have been doing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about your position on military aid, quite apart from a ceasefire? Have there been calls for the suspension of military aid, given the situation on the ground?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. I voted against the emergency supplemental, because it included additional offensive aid, as opposed to — well, it includes defensive, as well, which I can support, but the idea that we’re voting to resupply these types of arms that have been used in indiscriminate bombing by Israel in Gaza, contributing and creating to this humanitarian debacle, I had to oppose that. And it’s complicated, because it’s tied in the same bill with aid to Ukraine, which I and others strongly support. But we need to have a Senate where we can actually put up amendments, be able to debate pieces of the legislation, which we were unable to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Merkley, the Michigan primary just happened. We see there this “uncontested” [sic] vote. For every six people who voted for Biden, for every six Democrats, one person voted for “uncontested” [sic] — over 100,000 people in Michigan, the battleground state — meaning “uncommitted.” And this was clearly a vote for a ceasefire and for President Biden to change his position on embracing Israel, on providing weapons for Israel, on perhaps saying that he’s being harsh behind the scenes but continuing to embrace Israel publicly and when it comes to issues like military aid. Do you think that President Biden is perhaps putting his own reelection in jeopardy for the stance he’s taken on Israel, whether it’s the Arab American community in this country responding, the African American community — a thousand pastors just wrote him a letter — youth vote in this country? And have you had conversations with him?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Well, I have not had conversations directly with President Biden, but I have with many of his advisers. And the situation is such, they are conscious of, certainly, how this is reverberating in a political context. But, certainly, Palestinian Americans are profoundly disturbed. It’s hard to find any Palestinian American who has not lost members of their extended family in Gaza or is deeply disturbed through their friends and extended associations of the impact.

And we have a population that has thought about the issues of social justice in focused ways over the last few years, in the #MeToo movement, in the Black Lives Matter movement. And what they are seeing is a connection, identification with folks in Palestine that are in Gaza, who are the weaker party in this and who are civilians who are dying through this type of warfare and being injured on a massive scale. And it’s profoundly disturbing. It should be profoundly disturbing to every American, but it is certainly affecting how younger folks, who have grown up with a social consciousness, are seeing this and pondering the election to come. It is a significant electoral issue.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Senator Merkley, just to go back to your visit to Rafah last month, if you could explain what exactly the situation is on the crossing, along the crossing, and why so many trucks are being turned away? There are lines and lines of them on the Egyptian side of the border. And when you were there, you said that in a warehouse in Rafah filled with material — you saw this warehouse — that had been rejected in inspection, the warehouse included things like oxygen cylinders, gas-powered generators, tents, and medical kits used in delivering babies. What explanation has been given for why these things are being turned away?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Well, Israel has had great reluctance about providing aid into Gaza, and yet they control all the entry points into Gaza, so they are the critical factor. And so, they set up a system that’s full of challenges. So, truck drivers have to wait for permission to go to the inspection location, which is in Israel. So they drive them from — they may be waiting quite a while in Egypt, waiting for permission to do that, get to that inspection point, and may be told, “Well, there is an item on your truck that we can’t allow.” For example, one issue we heard about was scalpels in birthing kits. Well, they have a sharp edge, so this is being rejected. Or perhaps it’s an oxygen tank for a hospital, but that metal could be used as a missile launcher. Or this is a power generator needed also for a hospital, but it could be used by Hamas to put air into a tunnel. So these things get rejected, even after they have often been cleared in advance. And if a single item is rejected off the truck, the entire truck is rejected.

And so, this is why the process is so complicated and difficult. Partly it’s rooted in an authentic desire to avoid dual-use items that will help Hamas, and partly it’s rooted in a reluctance to provide aid directly from Israel into Gaza. And yet the U.S. has depended upon that as a way to provide humanitarian aid, and it’s been so grossly inadequate. So, every single day, we see the growing collapse of the medical system. We see women who are having C-sections without anesthesia. We see children having their limbs amputated without anesthesia. We see basic supplies of medicine for people who are suffering from high blood pressure, or they’re suffering from diabetic circumstances, or they have infections, and they don’t have antibiotics. This is unacceptable.

It’s why I’ve been calling for the U.S. to bypass Israel and do direct deliveries of aid. We have the ability to get airlift of every medicine needed to those remaining few hospitals that are functioning. We have the ability to get aid onshore with our huge sealift and airlift capability and then have it distributed by humanitarian organizations. We are complicit now in the starvation and humanitarian catastrophe because of our close relationship, and this has to end. We have to act directly.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you call it a genocide, Senator Merkley?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: I have not used the word “genocide.” I’m not a lawyer. I’m not an international humanitarian or a legal organization. But let’s just describe that these circumstances, being deliberately inflicted upon the people, and the displacement, have many of the characteristics of the worst situations around the world that we have condemned previously.

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