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Congress Reacts to News of American Death in Israeli Raid With Silence

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/06/coffins-480x319.jpgRelatives in Istanbul mourn on the coffins of victims of Israel's raid of ships bound for Gaza. (Zuma)

On Thursday, the world learned that one of the activists killed this week by Israeli commandos was a U.S. citizen. On Capitol Hill, the news seemed to raise no eyebrows at all.

Furkan Dogan, a New York-born student living in Turkey, was one of nine activists killed, according to numerous reports, when Israeli soldiers on Monday boarded the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying aid supplies to the Gaza Strip in defiance of an Israeli blockade. The 19-year-old had been shot five times — including four shots to the head.

[Congress1] The raid has stirred a storm of criticism in much of Europe and the Middle East, not least because the soldiers had boarded the vessel — and five smaller ships — in international waters. Yet since news of Dogan’s identity and U.S. citizenship made headlines, the reaction from Washington lawmakers has been mostly silence — an odd response in the wake of such a high-profile episode.

Indeed, while a few Democratic leaders responded earlier in the week to the initial raid — most either defending Israel or cautiously urging an investigation into the incident — none reacted to the more recent news of Dogan’s death. Instead, congressional leaders seem ready to let the White House handle the thorny diplomacy of confronting the ally that’s just killed an American.

Calls to the offices of a number of Democratic leaders — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (Mass.) and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (Calif.) — were not returned Thursday.

The episode highlights the delicacy of Washington’s relationship with Israel, the only recognized democracy in the Middle East, and one that the United States supports with billions of dollars in military aid each year. It also creates a dilemma for the Obama administration, which is now forced to walk a thin line between the domestic pro-Israel crowd — which holds tremendous sway (and lobbies with millions of dollars) in Washington — and foreign allies calling for a more concrete condemnation of the deadly attack.

Obama on Thursday continued to approach the issue gingerly, telling CNN’s Larry King that the episode was “tragic” and the deaths “unnecessary.” But the president also stopped short of condemning Israel, instead reiterating his previous call for the country to cooperate in an investigation.

“I think the Israelis are going to agree to that — an investigation of international standards — because they recognize that this can’t be good for Israel’s long-term security,” Obama said.

Earlier in the day, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had dodged questions about whether the news of Dogan’s death alters the administration’s diplomatic position. Still, the death of a U.S. citizen likely puts a greater pressure on Washington’s political leaders to take a stand at some point — a dynamic not unlike that surrounding the 2003 death of Rachel Corrie, an American human rights activist killed in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer as she protested the demolition of a Palestinian’s home.

Meanwhile, Israeli leaders have adamantly defended Monday’s raid as a necessary move to uphold the blockade and ensure that no weapons were smuggled into Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, an Islamic group that advocates for the elimination of Israel. As for the shootings, Israeli officials contend that the soldiers were simply acting in self defense after being attacked by activists on the Mavi Marmara.

It’s an argument being echoed by Israeli’s staunchest backers on Capitol Hill.

“I strongly support Israel’s right to defend itself, and the right of Israel’s naval commandos, who were executing a legal mission, to defend themselves by using force when they were brutally attacked,” Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said this week. “I strongly condemn the action of those who assaulted the Israeli troops and made the use of violence by Israeli troops necessary in self-defense.”

Yet those participating in the aid flotilla have a different tale to tell. And Dogan wasn’t the only American taking part. Also aboard the ships were Hedy Epstein, a St. Louis-based author and Holocaust survivor; Ann Wright, a 29-year veteran of the U.S. Army; and Edward Peck, former U.S. ambassador to Mauritania and deputy director of the White House anti-terror task force under the Reagan administration.

In an interview with Salon on Thursday, Peck argued that those claiming the Israeli soldiers were simply acting in self defense have “got it backwards.”

“There are civilians, men and woman, on a Turkish-flagged vessel, in international waters. And here comes a group of heavily armed … guys who are going to take over the ship by force and then take it to Israel, where the passengers don’t want to go,” Peck said. “And so they pick up deck chairs and other things to fight off these heavily armed — and by the way, masked — commandos, and somehow they become the attackers.

“So that,” Peck said, “depresses me a little bit.”

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