BY JASON LEMON ON 5/14/21
President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer appear to be at odds with a vocal segment of the Democratic Party that has criticized Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians amid the region’s escalating conflict.
Last weekend, Israeli security forces cracked down on Palestinian worshippers and demonstrators at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, drawing swift condemnation from prominent progressive Democrats. That crackdown came as Palestinians demonstrated against an attempt to evict several Palestinian families from homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
Israeli officials describe the issue as a private real estate dispute between Jewish owners and Palestinians that is being resolved in Israel’s courts. Palestinians and their supporters view the expected evictions as emblematic of a wider Israeli strategy to remove Palestinians to make way for Israeli settlers.
After the initial tensions surrounding Al-Aqsa, the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad began launching hundreds of rockets at Israeli targets. Israel then began carrying out strikes against Palestinian targets in the Gaza Strip and has amassed a ground force along the Palestinian territory’s border.NEWSWEEK NEWSLETTER SIGN-UP >
According to the Associated Press, more than 120 Palestinians have been killed—including 31 children and 20 women. An additional 900 have been injured. In Israel, seven people have died, including a 6-year-old child.
“My expectation and hope is this will be closing down sooner than later,” Biden said at the White House on Wednesday. “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”
Pelosi issued a similar statement on Tuesday. “I condemn the escalating and indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas against Israel. Israel has the right to defend herself against this assault, which is designed to sow terror and undermine prospects for peace,” the Democratic House speaker said.NEWSWEEK SUBSCRIPTION OFFERS >
“Every civilian death is a tragedy that we mourn. Hamas’s accelerating violence only risks killing more civilians, including innocent Palestinians,” Pelosi added, suggesting Hamas was responsible for the deaths of Palestinians caused by Israeli military strikes.READ MORE
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Schumer, who is Jewish-American and has typically been viewed as staunchly supportive of Israel, has not tweeted or publicly released a statement about the present conflict. Newsweek reached out to Schumer’s office for comment but did not immediately receive a response.
Meanwhile, the vocal progressive wing of the Democratic Party has been highly critical of Israel’s actions. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who is Jewish-American and caucuses with the Democrats, slammed “Israeli extremists” and demanded the U.S. government push back against Israel’s government.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat and prominent progressive, urged the Biden administration to “make clear to the Israeli government” that the evictions of Palestinians from their homes would be “illegal and must stop immediately.”
Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat who is Palestinian-American, said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be held responsible for “war crimes.” In a House floor speech, Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, described Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid.”
Pressley asked, “Should our taxpayer dollars create conditions for justice, healing and repair, or should those dollars create conditions for oppression and apartheid?”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, blasted Biden’s remarks about Israel’s “right to defend itself,” saying his statement lacked context.
“Blanket statements like these w/ little context or acknowledgement of what precipitated this cycle of violence – namely, the expulsions of Palestinians and attacks on Al Aqsa – dehumanize Palestinians & imply the US will look the other way at human rights violations. It’s wrong,” she tweeted.
“By only stepping in to name Hamas’ actions – which are condemnable – & refusing to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians, Biden reinforces the false idea that Palestinians instigated this cycle of violence,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote. “This is not neutral language. It takes a side – the side of occupation.”
The rift between Democratic leaders and many more-progressive Democrat members is notable, as support for Israel’s government has long been viewed as largely bipartisan in Washington. Now, many Democratic lawmakers are vocally raising concerns about the treatment of Palestinians and human rights abuses committed by Israel—concerns that were long downplayed by Republicans and Democrats alike. This shift aligns with efforts of many progressive activists.
The group Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish-American organization that advocates for Palestinian rights, plans to hold a demonstration outside Schumer’s New York home on Friday evening. The progressive activists will demand that Schumer and other lawmakers commit to ending U.S. military support for Israel and call for an end to Israeli strikes targeting Palestinians.
“There is a wedge growing within the Democratic Party. On one side, a group of progressive lawmakers genuinely believe that all people—Palestinian included—deserve to live in safety and freedom, and that the U.S. should not fund Israel’s oppression of Palestinians,” Beth Miller, Jewish Voice for Peace Action’s government affairs manager, said in an email to Newsweek.
Miller called out the “old guard establishment” within the Democratic Party, saying these lawmakers view it to be the “safest bet” to continue to offer “unwavering” support for Israel. She described this as “a blank check for an apartheid regime” but said the “growing divide” within the political party is “truly unprecedented,” crediting the work of the grass-roots Palestinian rights movement.
Fellow progressive Jewish-American group IfNotNow has repeatedly condemned Israel’s actions as well. “Every unnecessary death has a story. This violence simply must end. Apartheid must end,” the organization tweeted on Friday.
A growing number of Democratic voters appear to be frustrated with the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. Polling released by Gallup in March showed that a majority (53 percent) of Democratic voters believe the U.S. government should put additional pressure on Israel to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. That number marked a 10 percent increase from in 2018 and a 20 percent increase from 2008.
Despite this notable shift in Democrats’ sentiments, Biden and other Democratic leaders remain committed to supporting the Israeli government. Meanwhile, progressive Democrats have proposed withholding military aid to Israel unless it addresses key human rights concerns. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. approved a plan in 2016 that provides Israel with about $3.8 billion in annual military aid for a decade.
“This is not a conflict between two states,” Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, said in a Thursday House floor speech. “This is not a civil war. It is a conflict where one country funded and supported by the United States government continues an illegal military occupation over another group of people [the Palestinians].”
Newsweek reached out to the White House for comment but did not hear back before publication.