Lawmakers backing Israel in post-flotilla letter

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Majorities in both houses of the Congress have signed on to letters affirming U.S. support for Israel in the wake of its raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla.

The letters, promoted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, are being sent to President Obama.

"We write to affirm our support for our strategic partnership with Israel, and encourage you to continue to do so before international organizations such as the United Nations," begins the Senate letter, which by Monday had garnered 83 of a possible 100 signatures. "The United States has traditionally stood with Israel because it is in our national security interest and must continue to do so."

A similar House of Representatives letter garnered 307 signatures. Both letters have been in circulation for more than a week.

The letters blame the Turkish charity involved in the Gaza flotilla incident for the violence. The Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, known as IHH, helped fund the ship Israel boarded on May 31, resulting in the deaths of nine Turks, including one Turkish American, and the injury of seven Israeli soldiers. The ship was one of six attempting to breach Israel’s embargo of the Gaza Strip, which is under the control of the Hamas terrorist group.

"Israeli forces were able to safely divert five of the six ships challenging the blockage," the Senate letter says. "However, video footage shows that the Israeli commandos who arrived on the sixth ship, which was owned by the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (the IHH), were brutally attacked with iron rods, knives, and broken glass. They were forced to respond to that attack and we regret the loss of life that resulted."

Competing accounts of the melee — backed by incomplete video footage — blame both the Israeli commandos and the passengers for starting the violence.

Both letters allege that IHH is affiliated with Hamas, and the Senate letter urges Obama to put the charity on the U.S. terrorist list "after an examination by the intelligence community, the State Department, and the Treasury Department.". Placement on the list makes it a crime to fund-raise for the cited group. 

The Senate letter was initiated by Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the body’s majority and minority leaders. Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) initiated the House letter.

J Street, a dovish pro-Israel lobby, has urged Congress members to seek changes to the letters or to write their own.

"The sign-on letters now circulating in the House and Senate, while expressing strong American support for Israel – a position we endorse – fail to address the impact of the present closure of Gaza on the civilian population, the deep American interest in resolving this conflict diplomatically, or the urgency of moving forward with diplomacy before it is too late," said the letter sent by J Street last week, before Israel’s announcement Sunday that it would ease the Gaza embargo. "By ignoring these critical issues in favor of a simplistic statement that supports Israeli policy and actions, Congress is serving neither the best interests of the United States or of Israel."

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