- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A fact-finding group led by the widow of former Sen. William J. Fulbright is urging Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to press Israel to allow more people and goods into and out of Gaza and let U.S. diplomats meet government officials from Hamas and Hezbollah.

A letter to Mrs. Clinton from Harriet Fulbright — whose husband chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and created a scholarship program that sends foreign students to the U.S. and Americans abroad — reflects findings from a 17-day “political pilgrimage” last month to Gaza, Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon by a group of U.S. citizens.

The trip was organized by the Council for the National Interest, a nonprofit that, according to its Web site, seeks to “advance the national interest in the Middle East and at the same time help repair the damage being done to our political institutions by the over-zealous tactics of Israel’s lobby.”

Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007, when its fighters drove out the other main Palestinian party, Fatah.

Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in August 2005 but controls border crossings into Israel from the enclave. Israel launched a major offensive on Gaza in December in an effort to stop rocket fire from Gaza onto southern Israeli towns. The Palestinians and human rights groups say more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed. Israel says the death toll was lower than that and that most of the dead were militants.

Stephen Buck, a retired U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in the Arab world, told editors and reporters of The Washington Times on Monday that Israeli policy toward Gaza constituted a “siege.”

He said Israel has deliberately deprived Gazans of essential foodstuffs such as lentils and tomato paste, classifying them as “luxuries,” and also prevented the import of construction materials such as cement needed to rebuild after the December-January offensive. He said Israel also has prevented more than 200 Gazan students from leaving to study abroad.

He said Israeli officials appeared to believe that “if we squeeze Hamas … they will lose” upcoming Palestinian elections, but he said the “premise is falacious.” He said the poor conditions in Gaza were only making it a more fertile ground for violence.

In addition to the letter to Mrs. Clinton, he said the fact-finding group hopes to brief someone in the office of George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator who is President Obama’s special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace talks.

“We would like to see an increase in the amount of goods going in and out of Gaza,” Mr. Buck said.

The movement of people out of Gaza is now 15 percent of what it used to be, he said, and the number of trucks going in and out are down to a handful from about 500 a day in 2005.

Israeli officials say they have curbed traffic to protect their security and that levels of trade between Israel and Gaza have returned to 2008 figures.

Israeli and Western officials say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering a United Nations proposal to ease Israel’s blockade of Gaza, Reuters news agency reported.

Foreign governments have been urging Israel to allow more supplies, especially concrete and steel for rebuilding.

Johnny Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said Israel agreed with the Obama administration’s view there should be no contact with Hamas until the group agrees to abide by prior agreements made by the Palestinian Authority, renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.

“We agree with the current administration’s policy that three international conditions need to be met before negotiating with Hamas,” Mr. Peled said.

The U.S. also refuses to deal with Hezbollah, which it classifies as a terrorist group.

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