How a West Bank trip turned this Congressman into one of Israel’s strongest critics

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WASHINGTON – How does a lawmaker go from surface-level familiarity with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to being one of the most vocal proponents of Palestinian rights in the history of Congress?

It starts with Humpty Dumpty.

Rep. Mark Pocan had visited Israel on congressional trips since entering office in 2013, where he spent a bit of time in the West Bank. But it was always through an Israeli lens. After learning more about the conflict from the pro-Israel left-wing J Street organization, the progressive Wisconsin Democrat went again in 2016 on the first-ever congressional trip to Palestine organized by the Humpty Dumpty Institute.

Despite being organized by an NGO that Pocan jokingly admits has “one of the worst names in Washington,” it provided him with a first opportunity to see the land from a Palestinian perspective.

“Having a chance to see things from that perspective opened my eyes about what was going on, and the barriers in getting to a two-state solution that I have advocated for,” he tells Haaretz. “Seeing and talking to people in Palestine firsthand and walking through all the different issues really mattered a lot.”

Pocan, 56, and colleagues Reps. Hank Johnson and Dan Kildee were slated to visit Gaza, only to be verbally denied access 24 hours prior to their visit. They attempted to go anyway, demanding the denial in writing.

“In Wisconsin, we’re common-sense people. When someone says ‘No you can’t go in that room,’ I think there’s something going on and I should check out that room,” Pocan explains. “That was a giant red flag for me.”

He rejects any Israeli justification based on security grounds. “I don’t need anyone telling me they’ve got some faux concern for my security; I’m an adult and I can take care of myself,” he says, recalling a past incident where he was detained for five days by FARC guerrillas while backpacking through the Darién Gap in Colombia. “I woke up to machine-gun fire with paramilitaries on the river and guerrillas on the land,” he recounts.

For Pocan, it’s “imperative” that he can see and talk to people like those in Gaza firsthand. “It’s long overdue,” he says, noting that then-Rep. Keith Ellison was the last member of Congress to visit Gaza, in 2009.

“We know all the statistics: 2 million people; 98 percent of the water’s undrinkable; overt majority of people are on food assistance; people can’t get in or out – calling it an open-air prison is apt,” Pocan says.

Palestinian rights is far from the first human-rights cause Pocan has dedicated his attention to in recent years. “I’m wired to believe we have to support human rights across the board for everyone – and that doesn’t exclude any countries or regions,” he says. “This is just an expansion of what I’ve worked on for decades.”

When he first got into county government 30 years ago, his then-colleague and now U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin helped form a sister-city relationship between his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and Apartadó, Colombia. He also visited Arcatao, El Salvador (another Madison sister city), several times and was also one of the more outspoken advocates in Congress for ending the war in Yemen.

Since his failed attempt to enter Gaza, however, the former Congressional Progressive Caucus chairman has fashioned himself into both a leading voice for Palestinian rights and critic of Israeli behavior, whether through bills, resolutions, letters or public posture.

“I have tremendous respect for Mark Pocan. He came to Congress not being known as someone particularly engaged on Israel-Palestine. Instead of taking the path of least resistance and just going along, he is blazing a progressive trail,” says Americans for Peace Now President and CEO Hadar Susskind.

J Street Vice President of Communications Logan Bayroff echoes those sentiments, saying that Pocan “has become a true leader in pushing back against the injustices of occupation, recognizing how harmful the status quo is for both Palestinians and Israelis. He’s among the growing number of Democrats making clear that rhetorical support for peace just isn’t enough – U.S. foreign policy needs to confront de facto annexation and hold both sides accountable for their actions.”

A workman recycling salvaged construction materials in Gaza City last weekend, following the flare-up between Israel and Hamas. Credit: MAHMUD HAMS – AFP

Overwhelming support

Pocan admits the journey has been “a bit lonely” since the 2016 Gaza incident, but he has recently found himself surrounded by a new cohort of lawmakers placing a premium on human rights.

“The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States clearly has made people be more focused on human rights and outward discrimination – both here and abroad,” Pocan says. “Many of the newer members of Congress, especially, have been very vocal on this. They’ve come out of these movements and we’ve got a greater presence of folks working on these issues.”

Pocan also credits social media for allowing people to see events firsthand, including testimonies from Gazans. “We received over 1,000 emails from constituents supporting what I was doing,” in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “and about 165 on the other side – so about a seven-to-one ratio. And the same was true of phone calls, though there are far more emails,” he notes.

The lawmaker has been a central figure in every notable development on this front during this session of Congress. Prior to last month’s flare-up between Israel and Hamas, he co-led a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the U.S. to push Israel to better facilitate COVID-19 vaccinations for the Palestinians. He also co-sponsored Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill specifying various actions Israel may not finance with U.S. taxpayer money, while also calling for additional oversight of how that military aid is distributed.

More recently, he co-led an unprecedently harsh letter concerning Israel’s pending evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, organized a remarkable special-order hour on the House floor that cast a spotlight on the Democratic Party’s opposing factions on Israel-Palestine, and co-sponsored a joint resolution of disapproval concerning a $735-million arms sale to Israel.

He did not, however, sense he was part of a real-time paradigm shift.

“I was simply advocating for what I believe: that the only beneficiaries from the Gaza war were Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas. Now I’m questioning whether Netanyahu calculated correctly given what may be happening with the formation of a new government,” he says.

Pocan doubles down. “Look at what really led to the Gaza war: The [Israeli police] attack on the [Al-Aqsa] mosque during Ramadan, the situation with people losing their housing in East Jerusalem. Then start going even farther back: illegal settlements making it harder and harder to get to a two-state solution with land swaps, because even more people will be displaced,” he says.

“Go back years and even decades, and you start to really see – especially in the last eight-and-a-half years – what’s happening isn’t working and getting us any closer to peace. In fact, just the opposite.”

Rep. Mark Pocan speaking at a rally in support of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid last year.Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

He is similarly critical of Hamas. “They purport to support the people of Gaza, but I don’t know how you support the people of Gaza when you have the hunger and the lack of clean water and the other situations you have there. It was unfortunate because I truly believe the vast, vast majority of people in both Israel and Palestine want peace.”

‘A different lens’

Pocan believes it is self-evident that support for Palestinians among members of Congress is growing, both in word and deed: “By not only joining letters but being very vocal on the floor of Congress, it helps to give a voice to more members to be able to express similar concerns that they previously had not expressed them,” he says.

He has shared “offline conversations” with at least one colleague whom he considers a close friend and who has traditionally been a pro-Israel advocate. “They understand what my goal is, we just approach it from different ways,” Pocan says. “At the end of the day, all of our efforts are to get to peace in the region and a two-state solution.

“Some of us who aren’t Jewish or Muslim, or particularly religious, can perhaps look at this with a different lens and see a situation where the current conditions are not at all pointing toward a path to peace, and you have to do something different,” he adds.

Pocan, however, rejects “overly simplistic statements” of a supposed Democratic Party divided over Israel, calling these attempts to make the matter black and white. He adds that he “completely agrees” with much of the Biden administration’s approach.

“I was on a call with the State Department about the region several days ago with a few other members of Congress. The administration said themselves that they’ve had conversations with Israel discouraging any unilateral unprovoked actions because that would be a potential problem with the cease-fire and moving toward peace,” he says.

The Wisconsin congressman says his real goal, along with fellow Democrats, is having the U.S. take a more active peacemaking role in the region: “We didn’t see that happening during the last four years, and we want to get back to that point where the United States can help to be a force for good.”

He does acknowledge, however, that he is “perhaps a bit more provocative in putting out some of these ideas that I truly believe, but maybe haven’t been discussed before, to try to show what some of the other consequences or paths to getting to peace are.

“The approach of the Biden administration, especially with the State Department, is diplomacy through direct conversations and perhaps not in public, and that’s something Joe Biden very strongly believes in. Both of our roles help,” he says. “The more I put pressure on the administration, the more likely they are to have private conversations, putting pressure to get peace in the region. We’re taking different roles in what I really believe is a common effort.”

A Palestinian man walking past the site of a building being demolished in Gaza City last weekend, following the latest Israeli-Hamas flare-up last month.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS – AFP

Deescalation tool

Pocan is hopeful that a new Israeli coalition government could adopt a different approach in the best interests of both Israelis and Palestinians, but welcomes any change in government at this point (“Many of the problems that have occurred are because of Benjamin Netanyahu putting Benjamin Netanyahu first and foremost”) – even one led by Naftali Bennett, a right-wing proponent of annexation.

“I’m open to seeing what the next results are. I understand how interesting a coalition and how diverse this is, even by U.S. standards. What I do know is that almost to a person that I talked to, whether it be in Israel or Palestine, they want peace. Having new leadership can maybe move that forward,” he says.

A member of the House Appropriations Committee, Pocan could not provide a specific answer on whether he would support the reported Israeli request of $1 billion in emergency aid. He does, however, advocate for some restrictions on dollars while supporting the Iron Dome missile defense tool explicitly as a tool of deescalation.

“If a missile is coming in and you take it out, no one should be killed on either side. But then I watched the response to the Gaza war from Israel where dozens of [Palestinian] children were killed, 100,000 people were displaced, media buildings and roads to hospitals were taken out. That no longer seems like a tool of deescalation to me,” he says.

“Reasonable restrictions ensuring we’re advocating with U.S. dollars for peace is important – I don’t want anyone to die in Israel or Palestine. Iron Dome should operate as a deescalation tool, but if it doesn’t, that’s where some of us are starting to ask questions,” he adds.

Pocan is unsure when he will next visit the region, but he is certain of one thing: “I’m going to get into Gaza somehow.”