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Opinion: Secretary Blinken, this is the uncomfortable truth about America and Israel

Opinion by Rajaie Batniji

(CNN) — On February 1, I met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for a 90-minute private discussion on the situation in Gaza.

I was seated directly across the table from Blinken in an ornate meeting room at the State Department. Blinken was flanked by advisors. I sat alongside a handful of fellow Palestinian Americans.

Some of the invited Palestinian Americans declined to attend, pointing out that there is nothing more that administration officials “need to hear or see to compel them to end their complicity in this genocide,” referring to the situation in Gaza.

I shared some of their concerns. But I decided to attend because I felt it was my duty as a Palestinian American with family in Gaza whose lives hang in the balance to let the secretary know directly the horrors and war crimes he is aiding and abetting.

Throughout our discussion, Blinken took extensive notes and nodded attentively. As we ran well past our scheduled time, he insisted on extending the discussion.

Here is what I told him:

I am Rajaie Batniji.

I take no pride and no honor in being here.

Many of my fellow Palestinian Americans discouraged me from speaking with you today, concerned that this discussion was solely performative. I share their concern.

I come here out of a sense of duty, to try – as futile as it may be – to save my family in Gaza from being killed.

I was born in Gaza and immigrated to California as a young child.

I grew up visiting Gaza often, and those visits shaped me in many ways. I personally experienced some of the violence of occupation.

I studied the history of the region at Stanford, completed my doctorate in international relations at Oxford as a Marshall Scholar – honoring the legacy of one of your predecessors in this office – and became a physician focused on the health of those that have the least privilege.

I’m an entrepreneur who builds teams and technologies that improve American health care.

I would rather not be here today.

Mr. Secretary, you have provided the weapons and the political cover that enabled the murder of 65 members of my family, mostly women and children, over the past four months. In strikes in mid-November, three generations of my family were killed by missiles as they sought shelter and safety. I carry their memories with me. I see their crushed bodies when I close my eyes.

The survivors in my family are homeless. Some 70% of homes in Gaza have been destroyed, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal, along with almost all the schools, all the universitiesmany of the hospitalsthe mosques, the churches, the historical sites and the public records.

My paternal grandparents’ home in Shejaiya had been among the last homes of my family still standing. This is the home where I was born. It collapsed in a “controlled demolition” just before the new year.

According to our own US intelligence agencies, Israel used 29,000 air-to-ground munitions during the first two months of its assault on Gaza. That’s more than were used in the years of the Iraq War – and Gaza is less than one thousandth the size.

No one I know in Gaza has a home, or possessions beyond what they carried as they fled Israeli bombardment.

My family may be better off than most in Gaza and they are still hungry. I spoke with my mom’s brother this week, and he told me he has lost almost 20 kilograms (44 pounds). Despite your promises, food aid has not been able to reach Gaza to come anywhere near meeting the need. It is blocked at every opportunity, including by Israeli protestors at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, and by Israeli inspections and within Gaza by the Israeli military. 

According to the United Nations, 4 out of 5 of the hungriest people anywhere in the world are in Gaza. You know that the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, provides food for most Gazans and critical infrastructure for other aid organizations. Yet, after Israel made unverified allegations that a handful of UNRWA staff participated in the October 7 attacks, you cut the funding for UNRWA in what I can understand only as an act of collective punishment. I fear this makes you, and me – as an American – party to the use of starvation as a weapon of war.

My cousins in Gaza, who are physicians like me, have no place to practice medicine. Their hospitals have been destroyed or incapacitated. After moving from Shifa to al-Aqsa hospital, only to be evacuated from each by the Israeli military after seeing patients and colleagues killed, they are now living in tents in Rafah and al-Mawasi, using their surgical skills to repair leaks in their tents while the bodies of wounded Palestinians go untreated, and often unretrieved.

I have worked extensively in global health and wrote a series of research papers in 2009 on what we thought then was a Palestinian health crisis. We could never, though, have imagined this – the complete destruction of Gaza’s health care system is unprecedented.

Even the dead among my family were not spared. Satellite images show that Israeli bulldozers and tanks desecrated the graveyards where my grandparents and great grandparents were resting. I hope to bury their remains again one day.

What do you wish to be your legacy, Secretary Blinken? You cannot say you didn’t know. You cannot say that you did not knowingly and materially support these deaths, which a US federal court and the International Court of Justice have both determined plausibly constitute genocide.

I am the father of three young children in San Francisco. As adults, I am certain they will reflect on this “genocide” with horror. It will be taught in our classrooms and remembered in our museums as we vow never to repeat it.

I ask you to use your power, which can stop the killing of our families, to call for an immediate ceasefire and to stop sending weapons to Israel. You and the president may be the only two people with the power to make this stop.

I ask you to use the full power of your office and every bit of leverage the US has to allow aid to reach all of Gaza, including in the north, where hundreds of thousands of people remain in desperation. And, to resume the funding for UNRWA, which will be essential to the distribution of any aid.

I ask you to uphold a rules-based order – which serves our long-term interests – by calling Israel’s indiscriminate bombing that has largely killed women and children, the attacks on health care and the use of starvation as a weapon of war as the war crimes you and I know they are. Your words matter, Mr. Secretary.

I feel indignity sitting before you in this comfortable conference room while my family desperately awaits word about a ceasefire, in the dark, hungry, and in tents in fear that the Israeli military will kill them at any moment.

In a dignified world, I would be asking for justice, not mercy. That day will come.

I hope that you, and this administration, can act quickly to bring our nation to the right side of history before it is far too late.

Update: A paragraph in which the author calls for a ceasefire, omitted in an editing error, has been restored.

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