Constituents show opposition to U.S. support for Israel at a town hall in San Lorenzo Thursday held by Rep. Eric Swalwell. PHOTO/Steven Tavares

CONGRESS | 15th DISTRICT | On July 11, Rep. Eric Swalwell riled Palestinian groups and constituents in the 15th Congressional District with a Facebook posting that expressed sympathy for Israel in its ongoing conflict with Palestinians in Gaza. “Innocent civilians in Israel have been under constant attack from rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza,” Swalwell wrote. “These attacks have recently escalated, with over 500 rockets fired at Israel in just the past month. I stand with Israel as it seeks peace and security in the region.”

It didn’t help the a photo of the Israeli flag accompanied the post. Hundreds made forceful comments in opposition and the item was shared over 1,300 times. Later that day, Swalwell posted another, but more even-handed response. “As the situation in Middle East escalates I am praying for a shared peace between Israel and Palestinians.”

A vast majority of the 90-minute town hall featured over a
dozen comments on Swalwell’s support for Israel.
PHOTO/Steven Tavares

Swalwell used the latter opinion often at a town hall Thursday night in San Lorenzo while over a dozen pro-Palestinian speakers dominated the proceedings and criticized him for his support of Israel. Swalwell repeatedly called for peace in the region, but also labeled Hamas a terrorist organization. “I don’t have a dog in this fight,” he said. “I just want peace in this area.”

When some speakers called him out for receiving campaign contributions from pro-Israeli organizations, Swalwell said, “You’re right. I have vote for and supported aid to Israel. I have supported aid for the Palestinian people,” and he added recently voting to send $47 million in aid to Palestinians. “We must give Palestinians economic opportunity and access to the rest of the world,” he said.

But, similar to the controversial online posting, Swalwell maintained Israel has a right to defend itself. “I firmly believe it has a right and that it does so in a targeted way, only going after Hamas. It’s unacceptable for any innocent people to die in this conflict. It is also unacceptable to use innocent people in this conflict as shields.” Later, he said, separating Hamas from the Palestinian people is essential to solving the conflict. ”It’s not going to be easy,” said Swalwell. A number of speakers expressed skepticism over Swalwell’s neutral stance. Whenever someone raised the subject of Palestine, dozens flashed sheets printed with the words, “Congressman Swalwell. End the occupation now.”

Saba Maher, a law student from Emeryville, and others, said the $47 million in humanitarian aid was a meager amount in contrast to $3 billion in support the U.S. gives Israel. “I know that may seem like a lot to you, but that translates to band-aids and cupcakes and maybe bricks to rebuild the infrastructure,” said Maher. “You continue to say Hamas is a terrorist organization, but congressman, I‘m here to tell you, it’s Israel’s policies and it’s the U.S. blanket support for Israel that is creating Hamas aggression against Israel.”

While the number of deaths on the Palestinian side greatly outnumbers those in Israel, Swalwell said, “Every rocket that is fired by Hamas is intended to kill innocent Israelis.” To date, just three Israelis have perished, while nearly 2,000 Palestinians have died from rockets fired on Gaza. In addition, an estimated 9,000 more Palestinians have been injured. “In the face of these numbers, and in the face of this injustice, how can you continue to send support to Israel?” Maher asked. “How can you sit there and say it’s not just body count? They have faces, they have names. They are people.”

Another speaker named Layma Ahmadzai began her remarks with “I’m an American. I was born in Fremont,” and also criticized Swalwell’s Facebook posting for being one-sided and not taking into account the loss of life on the Palestinian side of the border. Swalwell responded, “Body counts is not a measurement for the harm.”

Since his election nearly two years ago, Swalwell’s public support for Israel has been consistent. Just weeks after winning the election in November 2012, the then-congressman-elect Swalwell made comments regarding Israel  similar to rhetoric heard Thursday night. “No nation should face constant attacks on its civilians. I stand with hundreds in Congress who support Israel’s security and right to defend itself. I hope we can see long-term peace in the region and immediate calm for those who are living in fear,” he said, Nov. 16, 2012.

Swalwell’s political campaigns have also benefited from pro-Israeli groups. Since arriving on the political scene in 2012, Swalwell has received over $50,000 in contributions from such lobbying groups. The amount ranks as his fourth largest group of contributors. After one constituent Thursday charged Swalwell with accepting donations from the most powerful Israeli organization in the U.S., the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he denied ever receiving money from the group. But, the comment is not entirely true. While fundraising records show AIPAC has never directly contributed to Swalwell’s campaign, his congressional trip last year to Israel, which he referenced Thursday, was paid for by a group called the American Israeli Education Foundation. This group is an offshoot of AIPAC.