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Dearborn's mayor has a message for Biden: Change course on Gaza or lose presidency

Biden beat Trump in Michigan in 2020, but his administration's unabashed support for Israel has alienated voters in the swing state
The chances of a Biden re-election in November's presidential without the backing of Michigan's Arab American voters may be close to impossible (Reuters)
By Umar A Farooq in Dearborn, Michigan

Abdullah Hammoud has vowed that unless US President Joe Biden ends his administration's unwavering support for Israel it will cost him the Arab American vote and re-election later this year.

The mayor of Dearborn, speaking to Middle East Eye in Dearborn, home to one of the largest Arab American populations in the US, said that, for the next two weeks, he and several other dissenting voices in Michigan will be encouraging voters to select "uncommitted" in the state's Democratic primary, which is slated for 27 February.

Citing continued US support for Israel's devastating war on Gaza, Hammoud said the grassroots "Vote Uncommitted" campaign would try to spur Arab and Muslim Americans in Michigan, 146,000 of whom voted for Biden in 2020, to vote "uncommitted" in an act of protest.

Last week, 30 other elected officials announced they would be voting "uncommitted" in the primary in a bid to make Biden change course on the Middle East.

"We did this because no presidential candidate has earned our vote," Hammoud told MEE.

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"President Biden's administration [has] continued to make destructive policy decisions [on Gaza]. ... If he continues this course, he will be remembered for sacrificing American democracy in 2024."

While Biden has referred to Israel's conduct in Gaza as "over the top", his administration has shown little sign of halting support for Israel's deadly offensive, which has killed about 28,000 Palestinians, wounded tens of thousands of others, and levelled entire areas of Gaza.

Abdullah Hammoud has been serving as mayor of Dearborn since 2022 (MEE/Umar Farooq)
Abdullah Hammoud has been serving as mayor of Dearborn since 2022 (MEE/Umar Farooq)

"We're using this opportunity to make our voice heard," Hammoud said.

Biden is unlikely to face a serious challenge from Congressman Dean Phillips of Minnesota at the primary, but there is ample polling evidence that his position in support of Israel is deeply unpopular.

As a result, the ​Vote Uncommitted campaign has drawn criticism from many members of the Democratic party as well as several media outlets, which have labelled it as a win for the presidential ambitions of Donald Trump.

In 2020, Biden beat Trump in Michigan by around 154,000 votes, but in 2016 the former president secured victory over Hillary Clinton in Michigan, albeit by a mere 10,000 votes.

'No presidential candidate has earned our vote'

- Abdullah Hammoud, mayor of Dearborn

As a swing state, the chances of a Biden re-election in November's presidential without the backing of the Arab American vote may be close to impossible.

In an interview with CNN on 2 February, Hammoud was asked if he was worried about what a Trump presidency would mean for the lives of Palestinians in Gaza.

Hammoud told MEE that the framing of the question was strange and lamented that voters were being blamed for the potential failure of a candidate, "rather than the candidate" themselves.

"We're a city that's protesting to help prevent the killing of innocent men, women and children. And as a community as a city, we don't believe there's a qualifier to that sentence or to that value statement," Hammoud said.

"We're in search of a president who also believes in that same value statement."

Ending the cycle of hate

Hammoud spent much of this week juggling phone calls and receiving Biden administration officials eager to win back disgruntled voters.

He's also been dealing with the fallout and fear of attacks after the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion column calling his city a "jihad capital" over its mass pro-Palestine demonstrations.

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Immediately following its publication, Hammoud increased the police presence in the city amid fears there could be an attack on members of the Arab community.

Since 7 October, there have been a series of deadly attacks on Palestinian Americans and individuals expressing support for the Palestinian cause.

Hammoud said the opinion piece was a deliberate attempt to malign a grassroots movement that was being organised by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

"The accusations cast about the city of Dearborn are both wilfully ignorant, as well as intended to lead to more division, more hate, more bigotry against the people of the city of Dearborn," he said.

Hammoud noted that Dearborn is no stranger to hate, and that throughout the past few decades the city has faced attacks and threats on its Muslim community, including Quran-burning pastor Terry Jones's planned march outside the Islamic Center of Dearborn in 2011.

The fact that, all these years later, hate continues to be shown against the city is the "the most disappointing part of all this", according to Hammoud.

"And as a father of two, as somebody who was raised in the post-911 era, I thought that America was better than this. But it seems as though we still have a long way to go to end the cycle of hate."

Gaza is 'extremely personal'

Outside his office in the Dearborn Administrative Center, an unassuming building next to a railroad company and across the street from the Ford World Headquarters, Hammoud paced back and forth in the parking lot while on the phone.

On a normal day, Hammoud's schedule would be filled with addressing the ordinary needs of Dearborn, from improving traffic infrastructure on the famed Warren Avenue, to working towards getting the city's buildings to get 100 percent of their power from renewable energy resources.

'This is an issue that's very near and dear to our hearts. It's extremely personal, and not something that we just tune into whenever the media feels like caring about it'

Abdullah Hammoud

These past few weeks, however, he has had to deal with a flurry of media blitzes on top of the Biden campaign and administration officials trying to meet with the community over the war in Gaza, after polling showed a drop in support for the president in what is a critical swing state.

While the mayor has remained poised, he appeared visibly fatigued that morning, a result of the four months of war in Gaza that has now extended into Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. He was also fasting that day in preparation for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins in March.

The footage of Israel's war in Gaza, which has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, the majority of them women and children, has caused a mental and emotional strain on many Americans watching the conflict continue to rage on.

For Dearborn, the war hits home as many in the Arab and Muslim communities hail from those countries being hit with bombs and some have families that have either been killed or are in the line of fire.

Like many citizens of Dearborn, Hammoud is a son of working-class immigrants from the Middle East. In his case, his parents were from Lebanon.

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"This is an issue that's very near and dear to our hearts," he said. "It's extremely personal, and not something that we just tune into whenever the media feels like caring about it.

"From our perspective, as immigrants, refugees who have lived under occupation, who have lived under apartheid, who have fled ourselves - or our parents who have fled because of civil strife and war, we have first-hand accounts of what it's like to live under such conditions."

For the city, the issue has been there for decades.

In May 2021, when Hammoud was a representative for the state of Michigan, he met Biden at a Ford manufacturing plant in Dearborn, where he handed the president a letter. The situation was similar. Israel was bombing Gaza, and Dearborn's community was demanding the US stop its support of Israel's military.

The letter to Biden called on him to commit to working on delivering real justice to the Palestinian people. At the time, Biden's people told Hammoud he would get a direct response from the president.

Nearly three years later, and amid another Israeli onslaught on Gaza, Hammoud told MEE he has yet to have received a response.

"I never got a direct response from the president back in 2021 as it pertained to the issues of Palestine. But what I can tell you, and I think what this letter demonstrates, is that for us the issue of Palestine is a 365-days-a-year issue," he said.

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