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Israel-Palestine war: White House condemns progressives for caring about Palestinians

US politicians 'lost sight of their humanity' and will have to grapple with it for rest of their lives, says congressional aide
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on 5 October 2023 in Washington.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on 5 October 2023 in Washington (AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

The White House is rebuking progressives in Congress for calling for a ceasefire and showing sympathy and concern for the loss of innocent Palestinian life.

US President Joe Biden's administration has given its complete backing to Israel's military response in Gaza, which analysts warn has greenlit a potential genocide.

At the same time, the Biden administration has made no attempt to curb the rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans, some of whom are calling for an open escalation to the conflict and for Israel to "level the place" in reference to Gaza.

The resolute condemnation from the White House regarding calls for a ceasefire have been met with chills from the offices of progressive lawmakers and others urging for the end to violence.

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"It's pretty obvious at this point that the White House doesn't care how many Palestinians die, civilians or otherwise," one congressional aide working on efforts for a ceasefire push told Middle East Eye.

"They've completely lost sight of their humanity. And that's a deep moral failing that they are going to have to grapple with for the rest of their lives."

On Saturday, Palestinian armed groups launched a multi-pronged surprise attack on Israel, capturing a number of nearby Israeli towns, killing scores of people and also taking a number of captives.

Israel responded with a declaration of war and launched a bombing campaign that has left nearly 200,000 people in Gaza displaced. So far, the number of those killed is at least 1,300 Israelis, and at least 1,537 Palestinians, including around 400 Palestinian children.

Since then, a number of progressives in Congress have released statements in which many have condemned Hamas - one of the armed groups in the attack - but also raised concerns about the Palestinian civilians being killed in Israeli air strikes.

"I grieve the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost yesterday, today, and every day," said Rashida Tlaib, the sole Palestinian-American in US Congress.

"The path to that future must include lifting the blockade, ending the occupation, and dismantling the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanising conditions that can lead to resistance."

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Summer Lee, a progressive congresswoman from Pennsylvania, said in her statement that she condemned "Hamas' horrifying attack on children and innocent civilians", but also noted that Israel's retaliation had "targeted densely populated civilian areas".

"We need urgent de-escalation and an end to this tragic cycle of violence. To achieve this, we must bring an end to the occupation and help broker a just and lasting peace," she said.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar said that "as we honor the humanity of the hundreds of innocent Israeli civilians and 9 Americans who were killed this weekend, we must honor the humanity of the innocent Palestinian civilians who have been killed and whose lives are upended".

In a press briefing on Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded to a question about certain progressive lawmakers calling for a ceasefire and de-escalation of violence.

"I've seen some of those statements this weekend. We're going to continue to be very clear. We believe they're wrong. We believe they're repugnant, and we believe they're disgraceful," Jean-Pierre said.

"Our condemnation belongs squarely with terrorists who have brutally murdered, raped, kidnapped hundreds, hundreds of Israelis," Jean-Pierre added. "There can be no equivocation about that. There are not two sides here. There are not two sides."

Claims of rape have yet to be substantiated by Israeli authorities or independent human rights groups, and one US publication, The Los Angeles Times, has issued a retraction of the claim.

Utterly 'gut-wrenching'

Jean-Pierre's remarks sent a shock throughout the offices of many progressive lawmakers as well as Palestinian advocates and activists. For them, the White House's message was clear: Palestinian lives do not matter.

"I think what's important is that people realise that what she's condemning is a call for a ceasefire. So what they're saying is that we don't stand for peace," one congressional aide told MEE.

'As a Palestinian-American, it has been gut-wrenching to witness a government that supposedly represents me enable mass genocide'

- Ayah Ziyadeh, Americans for Justice for Palestine-Action

The aide said that the mood in Congress is very bleak and concerning. According to a report by The Intercept, Congressman Josh Gottheimer responded to Muslim leaders not attending a vigil for Israeli victims by saying "it's because they're guilty". Gottheimer said that he did not make a statement about Muslims, telling MEE he made comments about lawmakers who had yet to condemn Hamas.

"Congressman Gottheimer never said anything about Muslims in the caucus meeting, a community he cares deeply about. Congressman Gottheimer said that the Members of Congress who have not yet condemned Hamas terrorists should feel guilty, and he stands by that," said a spokesperson for Gottheimer.

"This is an anti-Israel, antisemitic smear campaign from extremists who are targeting Congressman Gottheimer because he is a strong supporter of the US-Israel relationship and a vocal critic of Hamas terrorists."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called the ongoing conflict a "religious war" and called for the levelling of Gaza.

"When you've got Democrats in Congress in caucus making racist, anti-racist Islamophobic remarks, and, you know, that's Democrats. Not even to mention, we've got Republican senators calling for genocide. What else can you say?" said the congressional aide.

Another aide for a progressive Democrat's office said the amount of threats their office is receiving over their voicing of concerns for Palestinian lives is at the highest levels they've ever seen. And at the same time, seeing Democrats and Republicans give their full-fledged support for Israel's assault on Gaza is a double standard that is "suffocating".

"None of those comments have received condemnation from anyone in public office, nor have they been challenged on television. Nor has anyone else been asked about them," the aide told MEE, asking to speak on background.

"Calling even calls for peace and a ceasefire repugnant is insulting and only puts more of a target on these women's back, not just politically but personally," the aide added, referring to the several progressive lawmakers' statements.

Ayah Ziyadeh, a Palestinian-American organizer, said that to see the White House respond to a call to ceasefire with condemnation was utterly "devastating".

"As a Palestinian-American, it has been gut-wrenching to witness a government that supposedly represents me enable mass genocide and recklessly uplift deadly propaganda," Ziyadeh, who is the advocacy director for Americans for Justice in Palestine-Action, told MEE.

* This article was edited on 14 October 2023 to add a response from Congressman Josh Gottheimer.

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