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Backlash as congresswoman drops support for bill to protect Palestinian children

Arab-American advocates demand answers from Debbie Dingell, who represents large Arab community in Michigan
Dingell says bill was 'ultimately counterproductive to peaceful, two-state solution' (AFP/File photo)

Dearborn is known as the heart of Arab America.

Arabic store signs flank its streets; Lebanese and Yemeni restaurants dot its commercial districts and Arab immigrants and their descendants constitute the bulk of its population of about 95,000.

The Detroit suburb has been represented in Congress by the Dingell family for almost 55 years. Throughout the decades, the late John Dingell and his successor Congresswoman Debbie Dingell have maintained warm ties to the city's Arab community.

'Whether on the politics or the substance, I cannot explain this move'

- Maya Berry, Arab American Institute

Despite that historical harmony, Arab-American advocates are demanding answers from Dingell after she withdrew her support for a bill that would bar US aid from contributing to the imprisonment of Palestinian children. 

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Congresswoman Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota, introduced the legislation late in April, and Dingell was among its early cosponsors along with more than 20 progressive lawmakers, including Rashida Tlaib, who represents neighbouring Detroit.

Dingell's response

Earlier this week, however, Dingell's name disappeared from the list of co-sponsors, and the congresswoman confirmed to Middle East Eye that she no longer supports the legislation, known as HR 2407.

Dingell said after speaking to people in her community, she felt that the bill was "ultimately counterproductive to a peaceful, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".

'It's not radical or controversial to support the human rights of children'

- Ahmad Abuznaid, community organiser

The legislation's backers say the resolution simply aims to stop US taxpayers' dollars from aiding in the imprisonment of as many as 700 Palestinian minors annually.

Dingell said she has been "strongly critical" of unilateral moves that she said harm the prospects of peace.

"My voting record on these issues speaks for itself. I will continue working on and investing in policies that will address the human rights situation in the Middle East and work toward peace," the congresswoman said in an email.

While Arab-American advocates acknowledged that Dingell has been a friend of their community, activists were left bewildered by her U-turn on the legislation.

"Congresswoman Dingell has always been a leader our community could rely on and a fierce advocate for her constituents. Withdrawing her sponsorship of HR 2407 is an abdication of both," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington-based think-tank.

Berry added that by pulling her support for the bill, the congresswoman is accepting the "wrong and outdated" zero-sum approach to the Middle East conflict.

"Rejecting legislation that simply requires no US taxpayer dollars are used in the military detention of Palestinian children will not win her over any constituents who respect the humanity of Palestinians or a peaceful resolution to the conflict," Berry told MEE.

"Whether on the politics or the substance, I cannot explain this move, and our community and her district deserve better."

Two-state solution

Dingell's decision comes at a time of increased attacks on advocates for Palestinian human rights across the United States. President Donald Trump, as well as some key Democrats, have incessantly denounced Tlaib and other lawmakers over their criticism of Israel.

In fact, Jewish leaders in Michigan told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) in an article published in August that they will oppose Tlaib's reelection efforts because of the congresswoman's stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

JTA even reported that Jewish activists are reaching out to a potential opponent to run against Tlaib and "socking away money to target" the congresswoman.

The same story said Jewish leaders were growing frustrated with Dingell as well, partly because of her support for McCollum's bill. 

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Ahmad Abuznaid, a Dearborn-based Palestinian-American community organiser, said the Arab community must stand firm to hold its elected representatives accountable when it comes to upholding Palestinian human rights.

"The truth is the two-state solution is gone," said Abuznaid, adding that as Dingell withdrew her support for the legislation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was saying that he will annex large parts of the occupied West Bank.

"The reality is what's counterproductive to the two-state solution is the Israeli government and the US's support for the Israeli government."

'Not enough'

Dingell has been a fierce opponent of Trump's Muslim ban, and recently she was vocal against an anti-Muslim event planned near Detroit. 

But Abuznaid said opposing Islamophobia at home is not sufficient.

"It's not enough to stand against US-based Islamophobia because Islamophobia is a world-wide phenomenon," he said.

'We should not be paying for the Israeli military's detention, abuse and torture of Palestinian children' 

- JVP letter

The community organiser said Israel has been denying Muslim refugees the right to return to their homes, and recently, Netanyahu banned Tlaib and her fellow Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from visiting the occupied Palestinian territories.

"It's not radical or controversial to support the human rights of children," Abuznaid told MEE.

"Yet, we're told time and time again when it comes to Palestinian children and Palestinian human beings that we have to wait our turn. This is unacceptable."

'Act of cowardice'

While Dingell has spoken out against Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry, Dearborn's Arab community has reciprocated the support - overwhelmingly backing her in elections and donating to her campaign.

Still, Dearborn's Arab community is only one part of Dingell's district, which stretches about 64km west of the city to cover several communities, including Ann Arbor. 

Abed Ayoub, the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a Washington-based advocacy group, said supporting McCollum's bill should have been a "no brainer" for Dingell because of the level of support she receives from the Arab community. 

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"The fact that she withdrew is an act of cowardice. It's not something that an elected official representing Dearborn should be doing," Ayoub, a Dearborn native, told MEE.

Ayoub said given that Dingell represents one of the largest Arab communities in the United States, withdrawing her support from the bill gives cover for others to follow.

He called for a reevaluation of the Arab community's relationship with Dingell after her recent move.

"We're not taking away anything from what Debbie has done in the past; she has stood by the community," Ayoub told MEE. "But we have to look at: Is she getting complacent? Is she now taking the support of the Arabs and the Muslims for granted and not pushing forward our agenda and our issues?"

As concerns grew over Dingell's decision on Thursday, Jewish Voice for Peace, an advocacy group that backs Palestinian rights, circulated a letter backing the bill addressed to the congresswoman .

"We should not be paying for the Israeli military's detention, abuse and torture of Palestinian children," the letter, reads. "Her district, and people concerned about children's rights everywhere, deserve an explanation."

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