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October 12, 2023

At meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. lawmakers saw the pain in the Israeli leader's eyes, Rep. Norcross says

After Hamas launched its attack, a congressional delegation already in the Middle East traveled to Israel to discuss U.S. military and humanitarian support

Government Diplomacy
Donald Norcross Israel Provided Image/Donald Norcross

U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-New Jersey) and other congressional leaders met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders following the deadly terrorist attacks committed by Hamas in the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip.

U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross was among the first congressional leaders in Israel during the tense aftermath of the terrorist attacks carried out Saturday by Hamas. 

The group that rules the Gaza Strip, whose military wing is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other countries, had just laid siege to the towns in Israel surrounding Gaza and massacred more than 1,200 Israelis — most of them civilians. Thousands more were wounded and others were taken hostage.

"This wasn't in the course of a battle between armies," said Norcross, a Democrat representing New Jersey's 1st District in the U.S. House. "This was an attack on men, women and children — babies. It's just unfathomable what has occurred there."

One of the most overwhelming feelings Norcross recalled having this week was the visceral recollection of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

"To see the people of Israel experiencing this firsthand is just a flashback to what we experienced," he said. 

Before the Hamas attacks, Norcross had been in the Middle East as part of a small congressional delegation sent to discuss peace-building in region. He was joined by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) and Jimmy Panetta (D-California). 

The group had met Friday with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, to discuss how to resolve the interconnected conflicts and the global tensions that have made war commonplace in the Middle East. Other stops included Jordan and Bahrain. 

"It's an incredibly complex issue bringing peace to an area that has not seen it in a millennium," Norcross said. "The vision and pathway to peace was something that was front and center. We left that meeting with hope, and I went to bed an hour later with the dream that this could be earthmoving — a peace in the Middle East that is lasting and would be there for all of the countries."

Norcross awoke to learn of the emergency unfolding in Israel. He heard details about how Hamas militants had invaded communities in southern Israel, slaughtering and abducting residents and ransacking homes, public spaces, a music festival and other settlements. 

"I can't tell you how shocking that was, particularly coming from the crown prince and a conversation where we were talking about peace and prosperity," he said. 

The delegation quickly adjusted plans and traveled to Jerusalem, where they met with Israel's minister of foreign affairs. 

"That's where we had a few minutes with family members of those that were killed and captured," Norcross said. "It's not a dry eye in the room. You feel their pain and see what they're incurring."

Upon entering Israel, Norcross and his colleagues were advised to download an app called Red Alert, which provides real-time information about rocket, missile and mortar attacks to Israeli residents. 

"As I'm sitting in the room with the minister, having that go off is something that grabs your attention very quickly, and it brings home the breadth and width of the attacks that were taking place as we were sitting in Jerusalem," Norcross said. 

The delegation later drove to Tel Aviv to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials. 

"You could see the pain in his eyes when he talked about those who were lost or captured. We had very direct conversations on U.S. support," Norcross said. "They are unified and we are unified in eliminating this evil, but the fact of the matter is this is going to be a longterm operation. It's not a couple days and it's over."

Within hours of the attacks, President Joe Biden pledged U.S. support for Israel and sent a carrier strike group to the Mediterranean Sea as a show of military force. The deployment is intended to prevent the flow of military supplies to Hamas and deter the start of a broader regional conflict.

"This is horrific by any measurement, but it can get much worse," Norcross said. "That is where is America stands shoulder to shoulder with Israel to make sure there is no possibility of others jumping into this. And certainly, to make sure we give Israel all the help it needs — whether military, humanitarian or other."

Israel has declared war on Hamas and commenced heavy air strikes in Gaza. As of Wednesday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said that more than 1,400 people had been killed in Gaza, including hundreds of women and children. More than 6,000 people have been wounded.

In Israel, more than 3,000 people were wounded in the attacks. An official tally of the number of children killed is still being determined. The death toll is the largest the country has experienced since a weeks-long war with Egypt and Syria in 1973.

The number of people dead on both sides of conflict will undoubtedly surge. Early Friday, the United Nations said Israel’s military had ordered more than 1 million Palestinians — half of the territory's population — to evacuate northern Gaza in the next 24 hours ahead of what is expected to be the start of a ground invasion against Hamas.

At least 25 Americans have died and another 17 are thought to be among the 150 hostages Hamas is holding in Gaza, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday. One of the Americans killed was 20-year-old Itay Glisko, a New Jersey native serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. He died Saturday while he was on base. 

"It's all personal," Norcross said of the losses. "Coming from an area of this country that had firsthand experience of 9/11, we understood within a couple days where the threat came from. The people of Israel knew within seconds where it came from, and it was personal. There is an open sore here and you could feel it with every Israeli that I met."

Hamas rose to power in the Gaza Strip since 2006, the last time elections were held for Palestinian territories, and then in 2007, it seized control from the Palestinian Authority in a civil war. The group's founding agreement in 1988 explicitly calls for the complete destruction of Israel as "an essential condition" for Palestine's liberation. The U.S. government has designated Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization. 

"Their manifesto is direct and pure evil, as I've said many times," Norcross said. "There are no excuses, no explanations or justifications — there's no rationale for these inhumane actions. And we all, in the world, must condemn Hamas."

Norcross said the leaders in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East stressed the importance of trying to prevent conflict from spreading to the West Bank, another focal point of the decades-long conflict. Blinken and U.S. officials are expected to meet Friday in Jordan with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank and oversees parts of the Israeli-occupied territories there. The regime is a rival to Hamas and is backed by Western nations, but is widely unpopular in Palestinian territories. 

Before returning Wednesday, Norcross said he and colleagues met with some Americans who now call Israel home. Many said their sons were reservists being called to active duty to fight for their country. It reminded Norcross again of the atmosphere after 9/11.

Disclosure: U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, is the uncle of Founder & Chairwoman Lexie Norcross.

Correction: This story orginally misidentified Sen. Joni Ernst.