- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2009



President Obama during his campaign has many times expressed optimism concerning the possibility of a viable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Many administrations in the past have tried to foster such a possibility only to see it fail or just fade away. The Bush administration’s latest Annapolis effort is a case in point. To achieve a Middle East peace will require concessions on both sides as well as innovative and perceived even-handed initiatives in order to overcome the many deep rooted obstacles. Not the least of which is the U.S. role as an honest broker that has been tarnished rightly or wrongly, by our apparent overwhelming support for Israel as seen from the Arab perspective. Iran’s spoiler role with their support of various terrorist groups including Hamas and Hezbollah is another element that must be addressed.

The appointment of George Mitchell as a presidential special envoy was a good first step. President Obama has said he will deliver a major speech in a Muslim country sometime during his first 100 days and that he plans to reach out to Muslims. Words will not be enough. He must be able to show some immediate tangible positive action.

In that sense, the power of providing humanitarian medical aid cannot be overstated. Accordingly, it is proposed that as one of the initiatives he plans to announce should be to offer the humanitarian medical services provided by the U.S. Navy’s hospital ships, either the USNS Mercy or the USNS Comfort to designated countries in the region, including the Gaza. With all the suffering in Gaza over the years, offering to send one of the Navy’s hospital ships to Gaza should be viewed as one of many required actions to help create a positive atmosphere for moving the peace process forward. Project Hope, as it has done in the past with the Defense Department and the Navy, could coordinate the medical staffing with volunteer doctors and nurses.

Humanitarian cruises show the best of America. The first humanitarian cruise utilizing the Mercy just after its conversion from a supertanker, took place in 1987 to the Philippines and other South Pacific Island nations. In nine weeks, the Mercy treated more than 63,000 people. In Zamboanga, the center for the Muslim rebels, thousands of people from the province defied the terrorists to line up to receive medical treatment.

In the Indonesian Tsunami relief effort in 2004, before the U.S. Navy ships and the hospital ship Mercy arrived to provide medical assistance, 80 percent of the populace in Aceh Province were anti-American. After the humanitarian relief effort, 80 percent were pro-American. Since then, the U.S. Navy has conducted several relief efforts throughout the world, all with positive results.

Since Hamas has reacted favorably to the Mitchell mission, it should welcome the hospital ship. Hamas could help the people of Gaza by coordinating the humanitarian medical assistance provided by the hospital ship.

Israel should view this effort as an opportunity. Israeli cooperation on opening the border check points would be essential. Security for the hospital ship would be paramount and would have to be worked out in advance. If it cannot get into Gaza port, then the ship can operate off the coast as it did in Indonesia.

The ship’s portable medical facilities could be set up ashore, as was done in Zamboanga with the more serious cases being brought to the ship. A sustained “truce” would also have to be embraced by all sides for such a humanitarian effort to succeed. Of course, Egypt would also need to cooperate by preventing Hamas from using such a deployment to smuggle arms and other contraband into Gaza.

Deployment of the hospital ship to the Middle East region would be a bold move and would put America’s best foot forward.

James Lyons, U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations, and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.

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