Joe Biden’s silence in the face of Israeli violence is a disgrace

<span>Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
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On Saturday, an Israeli air strike killed 10 people from the same extended family after missiles hit the family’s house in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza. A five-month-old baby, the sole survivor, was pulled out alive from the rubble, having been trapped next to his deceased mother. As I write this, at least 180 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, including 52 children. Ten Israelis have also been killed, including two children.

All the innocents slain, whether Palestinian or Israeli, must be mourned, and it’s beyond distressing to know that the number of deaths will only rise as the days go on. What will remain steady, however, is this morbidly lopsided ratio of death. Many more innocent Palestinians will be killed than Israelis. That fact, along with over 70 years of continued Palestinian dispossession (of which the Sheikh Jarrah evictions are a part), has galvanized global opposition to Israel’s latest actions. Popular demonstrations have broken out around the world in support of Palestinian rights. Since the United States provides the key financial, military and diplomatic backing to Israel, one wonders where Joe Biden and his administration are during this crucial moment.

Not out front and leading, would be a kind way of putting it. Calling Biden’s attitude to Middle East diplomacy a “stand-back approach”, the New York Times noted how his administration has so far done little and accomplished less. “Muted” is how National Public Radio described it. In fact, it’s much worse. This administration’s reaction has not only been relatively quiet; it has also been callous, predictable and nothing short of a disgrace.

This administration’s reaction has not only been relatively quiet; it has also been callous, predictable, and nothing short of a disgrace

Consider Biden’s own response when reporters asked him on Thursday if the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was doing enough “to stop this violence there from escalating”. Biden answered that “thus far there has not been a significant overreaction” from the Israelis. Considering the massive asymmetry of death and destruction, one can only wonder, in absolute horror, what our president would consider “a significant overreaction”.

The Biden administration also twice blocked security council statements on the crisis this past week, and was alone in opposing the security council from holding an open meeting on the issue on Friday. Last week, a state department spokesman, when pressed, couldn’t even get himself to say that the right of self-defense extends to the Palestinian people. A US envoy also didn’t arrive in the region until Saturday, and the Biden administration hasn’t even named a nominee for US ambassador to Israel.

So while the administration claims to be working “behind the scenes” to solve this latest crisis, that argument is looking more and more like an alibi for being both unprepared for the tough demands of foreign policy while simultaneously adopting a nihilistic business-as-usual approach to cover for Israel’s aggressive policies. If that’s the case, both the Palestinians and the American people stand to lose, the former obviously losing dozens if not hundreds more lives, the latter losing important prestige and influence.

And who gains? None other than Benjamin Netanyahu, who just over a week ago, was about to be ousted as prime minister after his repeated failures to form a coalition government – Israel has had four elections in two years – while simultaneously facing corruption charges.

But here’s the deal, as Joe Biden would say. The president’s deference to Israel’s wishes – long the American reflex – may no longer represent the political consensus in his party. The United States is changing, and so is the Democratic party, with cracks emerging in the wall that has historically separated any criticism of Israel from American politics. That change was bravely – and movingly – evident on the floor of the House of Representatives last week.

“The United States must acknowledge its role in the injustice and human rights violations of Palestinians,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated during a Special Order hour organized by Representatives Marc Pocan and Marie Newman. “This is not about both sides,” she continued. “This is about an imbalance of power.” She was hardly alone. Calling Netanyahu a “far-right ethnonationalist” on the floor of the House, Representative Ilhan Omar asked how the American government can “pay lip service to a Palestinian state, yet do absolutely nothing to make that state a reality, while the Israeli government we fund tries to make it impossible?”

Representative Rashida Tlaib rose and affirmed that “I am the only Palestinian American member of Congress now, and my mere existence has disrupted the status quo. I am a reminder to colleagues that Palestinians do indeed exist, that we are human, that we are allowed to dream.” Her voice breaking after quoting a Gazan mother’s fears of losing her children to Israeli bombs, Tlaib said: “We must condition aid to Israel on compliance with international human rights and end the apartheid.”

Representative Ayanna Pressley proclaimed: “Palestinians are being told the same thing as black folks in America. There is no acceptable form of resistance. We are bearing witness to egregious human rights violations. The pain, trauma and terror that Palestinians are facing is not just the result of this week’s escalation, but the consequences of years of military occupation.”

And Representative Cori Bush, who is also African American, explained on the House floor how “the same equipment that they use to brutalize us is the same equipment that we send to the Israeli military to police and brutalize Palestinians”.

Congress has probably never seen such a powerful display of support for Palestinian lives. But what’s important is not just the support but the way it was articulated. When Ocasio-Cortez spoke, she drew a personal connection from Puerto Rico to Palestine. Pressley stated that, as a Black woman, she too was no stranger to the sorts of police brutality and state-sanctioned violence that Palestinians suffer.

Bush tweeted: “The Black and Palestinian struggles for liberation are interconnected, and we will not let up until all of us are free.” Omar connected her refugee experiences to surviving warfare. And Tlaib talked about being raised Palestinian “in Detroit, the most beautiful, blackest cities in America, a city where movements for civil rights and social justice are birthed”. Each woman made the struggle for Palestinian liberation into something deeply personal, like they were all meeting at the intersection of their collective lives.

For too long, Palestinians have been seen as problems to be solved or bombed. Once they’re seen as people and as a people, however, and once their struggle is both understood and identified with, everything changes. That was the change we heard on the House floor this week. It was an embrace of empathy for Palestine. In its own way, the change is earth shaking.

These are the voices in American politics demanding something different, a new way of looking at Palestine and Palestinians. Unlike what this administration is offering, that demand can be called leadership. And it’s a demand that must, and will, be heard.

  • Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America