While many are rightly discouraged as the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories continues into its fifth decade, Pastor Kent Johnson chooses to reference a sermon: Keep your hand on the plow.
For 18 years, Johnson, associate pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in La Crescent, has remained steadfast in his mission for peace in the Middle East, visiting with the persecuted in Jerusalem, attending human rights conferences and collaborating with other religious leaders to promote resolution.
On Sunday, Johnson arrived in the U.S. Capitol with 115 members of Churches for Middle East Peace, a Washington, D.C., coalition comprised of 27 national Church communions and organizations, for the “Persistent Hope: 35 Years of CMEP” summit, a three-day conference with keynote speakers, panels, advocacy training and a Tuesday lobby with legislators to promote H.R.2407.
Johnson will speak on his trip and the proposed legislation at 4:30 p.m. July 9 during the Church Women United Human Rights Celebration at First Lutheran Church, 410 Main St., Onalaska.
The bill, titled “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act,” was introduced April 30 by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and requires that “United States funds do not support military detention, interrogation, abuse or ill-treatment of Palestinian children, and for other purposes” and authorizes $19 million each fiscal year to the Secretary of State to be made available to non-governmental organizations in the U.S., Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territory (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) to fund the monitoring of human rights abuses and the treatment of Palestinian child victims of military detention and torture.
The U.S. supplies $3.8 billion in annual foreign military assistance to the government of Israel, funding that enables the targeting and abuse of Palestinian youth by Israel’s military system of juvenile detention.
According to H.R.2407, between 500 to 700 Palestinian children ages 12 to 17 are prosecuted each year — a total of 10,000 in the past 19 years — “before a military court system that lacks basic and fundamental guarantees of due process in violation of international standards.”
Additionally, the bill states, while the prosecution of children under 12 is prohibited by Israeli military law, security forces continue to detain them for extensive interrogation.
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“It’s a growing problem — teens and children are arrested, on their way to school or the mosque, without proper access to legal support,” says Johnson, regional coordinator of CMEP for the past decade. “I don’t want our tax dollars being used in violation of international law.”
Johnson, who collected signatures and letters of support for the bill from community members after a screening of the documentary “Imprisoning of a Generation” earlier this year, presented the sheets in person to both Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, and Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn. Tuesday in Washington and asked for their sponsorship of H.R.2407.
Johnson, who has spoken numerous times with Kind and congressional staff member Ben Huttereron on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says the congressman is “very willing to understand the issues” and hopes he and Hagedorn will co-sign the bill, noting, “So many of our communities are longing to see the Democrats and the Republicans work together.” Kind and Hagedorn were unavailable Friday for comment on the bill.
The pastor himself has been conscious of listening to both sides of the conflict during his trips to Israel, acquiring a “real understanding of the longing for peace. ... Israel has the right to be secure but they don’t need to use the military might and violence. The Palestinians deserve to live securely too.”
On the day Johnson met with the congressmen, Jared Kushner, one of the architects of the Trump administration’s Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative, was in Bahrain to host a “Peace to Prosperity” workshop and discuss plans to boost the economy in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.
A few days before, the administration had announced a $50 billion investment and infrastructure proposal, using public and private financing to create a proposed million jobs over a decade and reduce poverty among Palestinians. The proposal does not address issues such as the status of the Holy Land, border lines and plans for Palestinian refugees.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas decried the proposal last weekend, stating, “The plan cannot pass because it ends the Palestinian cause. We are not going to attend this workshop, the reason is that the economic situation should not be discussed before a political situation, so long as there is no political situation, we do not deal with any economic situation.”
The proposal, Johnson says, comes when “the situation on the ground has never been more unstable” and references Senate Resolution 171, which calls for restoring United States bilateral assistance to the West Bank and Gaza by utilizing the fiscal funds of $257.5 million appropriated for 2018.
“Fifty billion dollars is offered but they’re not able to release the $250 million? This peace plan is really a $50 billion economic plan — that needs to come after the freedom of Palestine. That’s how you get a two-state solution,” Johnson says. “Our hope and plan and our commitment as a church is the creation of a viable Palestinian state, where both peoples can live in security with a peaceful future.”
“It’s a growing problem — teens and children are arrested, on their way to school or the mosque, without proper access to legal support. ... I don’t want our tax dollars being used in violation of international law.” Kent Johnson, associate pastor of Prince of Peace
Lutheran Church in La Crescent