Congressman Russ Carnahan joined nearly 20 percent of the United States House of Representatives in a trip to Israel this month. Paid for by an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, these 81 representatives are supposed to represent our interests but are choosing to spend their recess in Israel -- and briefly in the occupied West Bank -- at a time when Americans are suffering and scared from high unemployment, a tanking stock market and a downgrade of our national bond rating.
I also recently traveled to the Holy Land, although I paid my own way. I was part of the "Welcome to Palestine" delegation. I was lucky. Most of my colleagues on the delegation were not allowed to join me. On July 8 over 120 people from Europe, North America and Australia were detained at Israel's Ben Gurion airport. They were then imprisoned by the State of Israel, most for over a week. Their only crime was that when Israeli custom officials asked what they were doing in Israel, they responded that they were planning to visit Palestinian friends in the Aida Refugee camp in Bethlehem. Three hundred other delegates who planned to visit Bethlehem and other places in the occupied West Bank were forced off their flights in Europe due to Israeli pressure.
During my time in the Holy Land, I had an opportunity to meet and talk with many Palestinians and Israelis. I learned about a system in Israel that discriminates against Palestinians on the basis of their ethnicity. In the West Bank, things are far worse. I observed an explicit system of racial segregation and ethnic cleansing, where Palestinians are separated from their own lands and water by walls, barbed-wire fences and machine-gun-wielding soldiers and Jewish settlers.
I saw the remains of an entire demolished Bedouin village, destroyed in order to expand an illegal Jewish settlement in the Jordan Valley. The settlement uses what used to be the wells of the Bedouin village in order to provide water for its swimming pools.
I witnessed a Palestinian farmer coming under fire from projectiles merely for trying to farm his own land. The excuse? His land is too close to a Jewish-only settlement. A European with me did not leave the vicinity as quickly as Israeli soldiers wanted and had his face smashed into the ground. He was detained for approximately one week and then deported.
I observed how Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is being economically and socially stunted by a giant wall that separates it from Jerusalem. It is a wall that Israelis can cross freely to travel between settlements and the rest of Israel. For Palestinians living in the West Bank, it is quite difficult to get a pass to go to Jerusalem, and if they do they must go through a humiliating inspection procedure at the checkpoint.
Israel systematically abuses the human rights of Palestinians who live within the territory it controls. In fact, what I saw can most accurately be described as apartheid.
Israel is certainly not the only country in the world that discriminates on the basis of ethnicity. It is not the only country that abuses fundamental human rights.
But it is the only country of this nature that receives over $3 billion a year in American aid money. It is the only foreign nation to which American politicians routinely offer their "unwavering support," as Rep. Carnahan's sister Robin did in her recent campaign for United States Senate.
And it is the only foreign nation that is receiving 81 American congressional delegates in three delegations, split among 55 Republicans and 26 Democrats, during a time of great difficulty for our own country.
Unfortunately, members of these delegations did not see the same reality that I did. This is not the goal of AIPAC, which calls itself "America's Pro-Israel Lobby," or its affiliate leading the junkets. In an interview in Israel, Congressman and tour leader Steny Hoyer stated that the American economic crisis will have no impact on our financial assistance to Israel.
I hope that Rep. Carnahan sees something that Rep. Hoyer did not. Rep. Carnahan has an opportunity to promote human rights over repression and the economic well-being of the United States over that of an apartheid state.