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Sanders calls for end to Israeli occupation in AIPAC snub speech

Vermont senator stresses need for Palestinian security, water rights and end to blockade of Gaza in final peace deal
Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at Seattle Center during a rally on 20 March 2016 in Seattle, Washington (AFP)

Bernie Sanders, the only presidential candidate to decline an invitation to speak at the ongoing pro-Israel AIPAC summit in Washington, DC, said on Monday that ending the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza were key to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As Democratic favourite Hillary Clinton and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump spoke at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering, this year entitled "Come Together," Sanders' Middle East policy speech from his campaign stop in Utah was perhaps his most detailed and boldest yet.

"To be successful, we have to be a friend not only to Israel, but to the Palestinian people, where in Gaza, they suffer from an unemployment rate of 44 percent – the highest in the world – and a poverty rate nearly equal to that," Sanders said. "There is too much suffering in Gaza to be ignored."

He added that a real solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would mean not just security for Israel, but for the Palestinians as well. 

"Peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic wellbeing for the Palestinian people," Sanders said, according to prepared remarks published on his campaign's website. He had offered to speak remotely to the AIPAC conference over video, but conference administrators denied his request.

"Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank," Sanders added. "Peace will also mean ending the economic blockade of Gaza."

The Jewish, democratic socialist senator from Vermont went on to detail his opposition to Israel's policy of appropriating the West Bank's water resources. 

Peace "will mean a sustainable and equitable distribution of precious water resources so that Israel and Palestine can both thrive as neighbours. Right now, Israel controls 80 percent of the water reserves in the West Bank," he said.

"Inadequate water supply has contributed to the degradation and desertification of Palestinian land. A lasting a peace will have to recognise Palestinians are entitled to control their own lives, and there is nothing human life needs more than water."

While Sanders' remarks might well have have earned him boos from an AIPAC audience, a significant portion of his speech did focus on his commitment to the US's relationship with Israel. He even highlighted the time he spent living on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1960s.

"America and Israel are united by historical ties," he said. "We are united by culture. We are united by our values, including a deep commitment to democratic principles, civil rights, and the rule of law."

"Peace will require the unconditional recognition by all of Israel’s right to exist. It will require an end to attacks of all kinds against Israel."

He went on to condemn Hezbollah and Hamas for their attacks on Israel and unwillingness to recognise the country as legitimate.

Pro-Palestinian social media users were surprised that a mainstream presidential candidate was so openly critical of Israeli policies.

Sanders has long been criticised by pro-Palestinian activists for speaking out on a wide range of progressive issues but remaining silent on violations of Palestinian rights.