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March/April 2009

Washington Report to Presbyterians

The Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza

by Catherine Gordon

In the very place where Jesus Christ walked upon the earth, walls now separate families and the children of God — Christian, Muslim and Jew — are imprisoned in a deepening cycle of violence, humiliation and despair.

— Amman Call, WCC International Peace Conference, June 2007, Jordan

The Gaza strip is facing a humanitarian disaster in the aftermath of a bloody war that left thousands of Palestinians wounded or killed in Gaza and scores of Israelis wounded in southern Israel and several Israeli civilians killed. While Hamas and Israel are both culpable, the civilian population of Gaza has borne the brunt of a war that has devastated a society already reeling from an economic blockade of two years.

In November of 2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported a steady rise in chronic malnutrition among the 1.5 million people living in Gaza due to the economic embargo after the election of Hamas, and this was one month before the Israeli incursion into Gaza for the purpose of stopping Hamas rocket attacks. Half of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are children under the age of 14.

Many aid organizations and human rights groups issued calls of alarm at the deteriorating conditions. “This is entirely a man-made crisis. Desperately needed supplies are languishing in aid agencies’ warehouses a few kilometers away, even though they’re ready to be dispatched,” said Givella Rovera, Amnesty International's researcher on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. She added, "The only obstacle is a gate that is kept locked ... there is no acceptable reason to deny passage to essential humanitarian aid and necessities."

During the war, basic services and infrastructure were destroyed, including hospitals, schools and factories. Gaza’s residents now face a severe scarcity of food, fuel, electricity and running water. The destruction of infrastructure has also caused a serious water and sanitation situation. Because of restrictions on travel and the shipments of goods into Gaza, relief efforts continue to be hampered.

According to ACT International:

Over 100,000 people are homeless or have sought refuge with host families. 400,000 people lack access to running water. Hospitals continue to operate at limited levels due to shortages of fuel and electricity, and the entire population, including relief workers, is in need of psychosocial assistance.

A spokesman from American Near East Refugee Aid called this a situation of “de-development.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has relayed messages to Israel expressing anger at obstacles Israel places to the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and has called on Israel to meet its commitments on this matter. State Department spokesman Robert Wood stated, "Aid should never be used as a political weapon."

The State Department also plans to announce a "substantial" pledge of U.S. aid for Gaza and the Palestinian Authority at a donors meeting in Egypt in late February. The U.S. Congress still has to approve the money and a final figure has not been set, but it could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Please contact your members of Congress, and let them know that you support sending aid to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

International Law and the Gaza Humanitarian Crisis

According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, while Israel completed its disengagement plan from Gaza in September 2005, it continues to hold decisive control over important elements of Palestinian life in the Gaza strip, including: control over the air and sea space, control over the joint Gaza Strip-West Bank population registry, control over the entry of persons who are not deemed residents of the occupied territories, control over the movement of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank, complete control over the movement of goods into the Gaza Strip and control over most of the taxation system of the Gaza Strip.

The State Attorney’s Office of Israel has argued that with the termination of the military government in Gaza, Israel has no obligation under international law toward residents of Gaza who should now direct all claims to the ruling authorities. Others have argued that while there is no military presence within Gaza, the broad scope of control that Israel does have amounts to “effective control”; and, therefore, Israel is responsible under the Fourth Geneva Convention for the safety and welfare of the civilians living in the occupied territory. Also, under international law, the parties in a conflict bear certain obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Under the Convention, Israel and Hamas, regardless of occupation status, are responsible for protecting the wounded, the sick, children under the age of 15 and pregnant women. They must also enable the free passage of medicines and essential foodstuffs, enable medical teams to provide assistance, and refrain from imposing collective punishment. Once humanitarian assistance enters Gaza, Hamas bears responsibility for insuring that aid reaches the intended recipients.

The Political Will to Address Climate Change

by Leslie G. Woods

At the opening of the 111th Congress, numerous domestic legislative priorities have been identified, both by the new administration and by members of Congress: fixing the failing economy, health care reform, new energy policy and a U.S. response to climate change, among many others.

Each of these issues is integrally tied to the others, for repairing the floundering economy cannot be accomplished without significant attention to our healthcare and energy infrastructure. Likewise, a U.S. response to climate change cannot be crafted without attention to restructuring U.S. energy infrastructure so that it is green, and making sure that the economic impacts of climate change and its solutions do not disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable in the United States and around the world. Because of the interconnectedness and magnitude of each of these issues, they will continue to absorb tremendous energy from policy makers and advocates.

From policy makers, there seems to be a real commitment to accomplish all of these challenges. Future publications will explore policy solutions for the other issues, and their chances for enactment, but this Report article will focus on the U.S. response to climate change.

On the House side, jurisdiction over climate change policy falls to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The chairman of this committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), has expressed a strong commitment to bring forward a comprehensive approach to climate change, pledging to bring a bill through his Committee by Memorial Day (May 25, 2009). His staff, in partnership with other members of the committee, seems to be hard at work drafting a bill. While the details of this effort have not yet been released, it is very promising that the person in the House with the most power to bring forward climate change legislation has set such an expeditious deadline.

In the Senate, the Committee on Environment and Public Works that has jurisdiction over climate change bills. Its chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has given strong indications that she, too, is committed to making climate change legislation happen, though she has not set such an ambitious deadline as Rep. Waxman did. Sen. Boxer’s approach has been to release high level principles, a lens through which she will, presumably, evaluate climate change proposals.

These principles are broad, with no specific policy recommendations; however, they show a commitment to many of the concerns that the PC(USA)’s 218th General Assembly expressed in 2008 in its policy statement, “The Power to Change: US Energy Policy and Global Warming.” Among these shared concerns are:

  • A need to be guided by scientific recommendations in developing effective strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The necessity to impose short and long term enforceable goals for achieving emissions reductions.
  • The use of climate legislation-produced revenue to offset the increased costs of energy, food, transportation, and other goods and services, for the most poor and vulnerable (Sen. Boxer’s principle is stated more broadly than this, and is widely open to interpretation, but this is our hope for her priority).
  • Investments in clean energy and efficiency technologies.
  • A commitment to engage with the international community in addressing climate change, in particular providing assistance to developing nations, which already need the most help in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

View Sen. Boxer’s principles.

A Memorial Day deadline and a set of climate principles are both excellent indicators of congressional commitment to advancing climate change legislation this year. As yet, no bills are introduced in either chamber, and we do not yet know how the debate will be shaped.

Herein lays an opportunity. The public debate has yet to take form, so advocates have a chance to shape it themselves. Political will results only from a ground swell of public opinion. Members of Congress need to hear from constituents that climate change legislation is not only important for the future of the earth and the creatures who live here, but also that it is an essential piece of the global economic recovery effort. We cannot move into a new and economically sound future if our energy use and care-for-creation are stuck in the past. A new, green economy is essential for moving forward in a sustainable way. Both energy legislation and climate change legislation will be needed to accomplish the daunting task of rethinking our economy and energy use, producing sustainable solutions for moving into a clean future.

On March 13-16, nearly a thousand faith-based advocates will gather near D.C. for the seventh annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Global Peace with Justice, where they will focus on three inter-connected themes: climate change, poverty and development and migration. When they visit Capitol Hill on Monday, March 16, to meet with their members of Congress, their unified message will call for climate change legislation. Their principle “ask” will include the following:

  • Reduce climate change emissions by enacting a mandatory system that lowers greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to recommendations from the scientific community.
  • Support vulnerable communities by providing substantial new funding for adaptation measures and transition assistance for vulnerable communities both overseas and in the United States.
  • Assist and welcome climate migrants by ensuring generous humanitarian assistance to people fleeing the effects of climate change.

There are many ways that decision-makers could choose to craft a bill that would meet these requirements, but these essentials must be included in any climate change legislation that is considered before Congress.

The Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiative and the Issue of Religious Discrimination

by Mary Anderson Cooper

One of President Obama’s first actions after the Inauguration was the creation of his Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office, to be headed by Joshua DuBois.

Although retaining much of the legal structure of a similar office in the Bush Administration, the Obama initiative will differ in many ways. Among other things, it will have a new 25-member advisory board composed of representatives of both religious and secular social service organizations.

Another major difference is that President Obama wants the office and its advisory team to be involved in policy development. President Bush used the office only to distribute funds. In making the announcement of the advisory board’s creation, Mr. Obama said he wants it to focus particularly on reducing poverty, strengthening the role of fathers in families and reducing abortions.

There is a long history of cooperation between the religious community and the federal government in relieving the plight of low-income people in the United States. In late 1980, at a time of soaring energy costs, President Carter made a grant of $1 million in federal funds for emergency fuel relief to households, to be distributed by a coalition of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish national organizations and the Salvation Army. President Reagan attempted to take back the funds, but retreated in the face of strong opposition by the religious groups.

In 1983 he was forced by Congress to accept creation of the Emergency Food and Shelter National Board Program, modeled on the earlier Carter plan, which has ever since distributed over $100 million a year (a total of $3.1 billion since 1983) through the same religious organizations, plus the United Way of America and the American Red Cross, to relieve hunger and homelessness in American communities.

Any time government agencies provide public funds to religious groups to perform social services, questions arise concerning separation of church and state. Some groups contend that no government funds should ever be given to any religious group for the provision of social services.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, others believe that religious groups, motivated by compassion and benefiting from the presence of volunteers to complement staff, are better suited than anyone else to provide social services and that they should be allowed to hire and serve anyone they wish, on any basis they choose. In between these positions are those of groups, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who believe religious organizations are uniquely qualified to provide needed services but should do so on a non-discriminatory basis without religious tests or requirements for participation.

The program created by President Bush granted nearly $11 billion to religious non-profits over eight years. While most of those organizations provide their services and assistance without religious requirements, some proselytize and share their faith beliefs with their clients. There has been no ban on religious discrimination in hiring, even for positions funded with federal money, a feature that strict church-state separation advocates find especially problematic.

The initial Obama program does not alter the employment rules of the Bush structure, which allowed religious groups to limit hiring to people of their own faith. Representatives of the new administration say that employment rules will be examined on a case-by-case basis if complaints of discrimination arise, and that, even if there are no complaints, the Justice Department will be asked to give legal advice.

As a candidate, President Obama was critical of the Bush Administration for failing to ban religious discrimination in hiring. In announcing creation of the new office, the President said:

The goal of this office will not be to favor one religious group over another — or even religious groups over secular groups. It will simply be to work on behalf of those organizations that want to work on behalf of our communities, and to do so without blurring the line that our founders wisely drew between church and state.

The policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with regard to federal funding for church-based programs is contained in several documents. The 1988 General Assembly Policy God Alone is Lord of the Conscience recognized “… that, apart from questions of constitutionality, the church faces serious issues related to its own liberty of faith and action when it receives government funds” and stated that

Service ministries operated by or related to Presbyterian governing bodies, whether or not they receive public funds, should offer all services without restriction based on race, sex, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation, and should conform to requisite health and safety requirements and standards regarding licensing and personnel qualifications. Where such programs are expected to continue for considerable time, placing them under the control of independent community-based bodies should be carefully considered.

A 1997 statement, reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 1999, concluded that:

… while the church, voluntary organizations, business, and government must work cooperatively to address the needs of poor persons and communities, the government must assume the primary role for providing direct assistance for the poor.

Religious organizations, including the PC(USA), will closely monitor the ongoing evolution of the Administration’s faith-based and community initiative, in the hope that it will deal appropriately with issues of religious discrimination, and that it will enable the programs it funds to make maximum contributions to the well-being of the people they serve.