Congressman On Gaza Trip Discusses Visit

Three Democratic lawmakers toured the Gaza Strip Thursday, a month after Hamas militants fought Israel in the area. It was the highest-profile visit to the territory in years. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who was on the trip, says the humanitarian situation in Gaza is "grave."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Some very unusual visitors to Gaza today. Three Democratic members of Congress: Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee was there, and also two members of the House - Representatives Brian Baird of Washington State and Keith Ellison of Minnesota - went as a delegation to the Palestinian territory. Representative Ellison, who holds the distinction of being the first Muslim elected to Congress, joins us now from Tel Aviv in Israel. Welcome to the program.

Representative KEITH ELLISON (Democrat, Minnesota): How are you doing there?

SIEGEL: All right.

Rep. ELLISON: (Unintelligible)

SIEGEL: From what you saw in Gaza, are the Palestinians receiving the food, the medicine, the water that they need?

Rep. ELLISON: No, not in the quantities they need them. The fact is that are dreadful shortages of everything. And I think that it's important that we - the world understand that. There's been somewhat restrictions on what they can receive. For example, items such as lentils and macaroni have been turned way at the border, whereas other items like rice and flour have been allowed through.

SIGEL: You're speaking of things that have been turned away by the Israelis, who control what goes into Gaza?

Rep. ELLISON: That's right.

SIEGEL: I saw a quotation attributed to Senator Kerry, who's there independent of you and Representative Baird. And he was quoted as saying when he was asked, Hamas has to change its policies. There is no change in our policy. Apart from that being the fact, do you agree with that - that there should be no change in our policy?

Rep. ELLISON: Well, you know, the purpose of our visit was to deal with the humanitarian needs of the people, which are grave. And, you know, I'll leave assigning blame to others. I do think that if unless there is some sort of a recognition of a national unity government, a lot of the Palestinians there won't be able to make any progress. I mean - and I do hope that the United States government will tolerate a national unity government of the Palestinians.

SIEGEL: But you're saying - if I understand you - that the ball is both in the Palestinians' court to actually achieve a national unity government and then for Washington to then deal with that government.

Rep. ELLISON: I think so. But I think that before we even get to the political situation, we have to deal with the humanitarian situation. (Unintelligible) dreadful shortages of everything and people are living under very, very harsh conditions.

SIEGEL: Representative Ellison, did the Israelis explain to you why, as you described it, rice might be let into Gaza through the crossings but not lentils or macaroni - what the rationale for that was?

Rep. ELLISON: No, they haven't. There's been no explanation for that decision. But, you know, I think their essential explanation would be that they would consider lentils and macaroni a luxury item, and they would consider the other ones essential. So I think that's the distinction that they're making. But I think it'll be a good idea to abandon that because it doesn't do anyone any good to deny all those kinds of things. All it does is increase the likelihood of the legal smuggling which doesn't benefit anyone.

Actually, it puts Israeli security in jeopardy and it also drives up prices in an exorbitant way for Gazans.

SIEGEL: One of the Israeli rationales or arguments for going into Gaza was to restore deterrence. Do you think that the experience of this most recent Israeli attack has left Gazans generally deterred from things like supporting people who launch rockets into nearby Israeli towns, or do you think their resistance was stiffened by it?

Rep. ELLISON: You know, I think that from what I could tell, your average Gazan would be as opposed to one of these infernal rockets as much as anybody else. I didn't run into one single person who was celebrating these rockets launches. I think, that they - look, they don't have any weapons and the people who would launch these rockets do. And so the people are doubly punished because they can't do anything about the rocket launching people, and they're isolated and cut off.

So to answer your question, I don't think anybody's deterred. I just think they're down and they're getting kicked as well as being down.

SIEGEL: Well, Representative Ellison, thank you very much.

Rep. ELLISON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota. He and Congressman Brian Baird of Washington State both visited the Gaza strip. Representative Ellison spoke with us from Tel Aviv.

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