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Arab-American leaders express concern over Biden’s rhetoric on the Israeli conflict

In a private conversation with the State Department on Monday, Top Middle Eastern leaders criticised the Biden administration for being insensitive and even reckless in its rhetoric in the wake of Hamas’ bloody attack on Israel, POLITICO reports.

During the discussion, the leaders expressed extreme concern about the conduct of the President and his team. The Chicago incident added fuel to the fire: a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was fatally stabbed which authorities described as a hate crime.

During the phone call, human rights lawyer Zaha Hassan said that she had received typical language from the presidential administration. At a press briefing last week, a State Department spokesperson did not explicitly say that Israel should end its total siege of the Gaza Strip, which deprives Palestinians of medicine, water and humanitarian aid, although he did say he expected Israel to abide by international law. She said on the call:

It gave the impression that it’s okay to do that to Palestinians because they’re Palestinians.That’s dehumanizing, and it opens the door for people to think that, well, you know, certain things are okay because they must be bad people. They must be terrorists.

Warren David, president of Arab America, told Andrew Miller, deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, that members were “outraged – to put it mildly – at the rhetoric that has been coming out of the Biden administration over the last few days.”

David noted that “the demonisation of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the Arab world in general is leading to a strong escalation of hatred” against them. He also asked Miller what the president and the State Department would do to “walk back their negative discourse” in light of the murder of Wadea al-Fayoume. David said on the telephone call:

We feel great damage has been done regarding the image of Arabs in the United States. In some ways, it’s worse than what happened in 9/11.

Miller responded that the President administration’s intentions were not to stir up anti-Arab sentiment. He welcomed further discussion of the topic and emphasised that “the Palestinian people are not to blame for the actions of Hamas” and that the administration took minority security “very, very seriously”.

However, it was clear from the discussion that Arab Americans and Muslims across the country fear becoming victims of a 9/11-style backlash following Hamas’ military action. The discussion also revealed their growing frustration with the administration’s stance, POLITICO reports.

Further escalation of the Israeli conflict can only increase these frustrations. This week, a blast at Gaza’s central hospital killed at least 500 Palestinians. Israel and Hamas have made conflicting claims of responsibility for the bombing.

After Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on 7 October, and the killing, and kidnapping already of more than a thousand Israelis, Biden came out in support of Israel. He said the Hamas attack was “pure, unadorned evil” and vowed that the United States would “have Israel’s back.” The president’s rhetoric has changed slightly in recent days. Biden expressed concern for Palestinian civilians, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US and Israel were discussing a plan to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged Gaza.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement Sunday saying it is “critical” that Palestinians have the ability to leave the territory “without being bombed militarily” and “access to the essentials: food, water, medicine, shelter.” In total, about 3,000 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the war between Hamas and Israel. According to the Israeli authorities, about 1,400 people have been killed in Israel. Biden declared at an infrastructure announcement in Philadelphia last week:

We can’t lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians had nothing to do with Hamas and Hamas’s appalling attacks, and they’re suffering as a result as well.

Similar comments were made at the Human Rights Campaign dinner. There, Biden spoke of a “humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” In addition, after the killing of al-Fayoume, Biden said he was “shocked and sickened ” by the news. He added:

This horrific act of hate has no place in America.

However, a number of Arab-American and Muslim leaders, as well as their allies, view Biden’s remarks as too late and insufficient. In interviews with reporters, they said they were horrified by recent remarks by foreign policy hawks such as Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who called the war between Israel and Hamas a “religious war.” However, they were more saddened by the remarks of officials from Biden and other Democrats with whom they most often aligned.

Last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called progressive lawmakers’ advocacy for a cease-fire “shameful,” “wrong” and “disgusting.” Among the lawmakers elected to Congress were the first two Muslim women, Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). This fact was of particular concern to Muslims in America, according to POLITICO.

According to White House reports, Biden has always spoken out against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He has repeatedly stated that Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. Last week, Joe Biden directed his top national security officials to meet with Muslim leaders and urged law enforcement officials to identify any potential domestic threats that could arise from a war between Israel and Hamas.

The US president has been fighting anti-Muslim hatred even before the war began. In May last year, at the Eid al-Fitr celebration at the White House, he said that combating Islamophobia was a “priority” for his administration and spoke of a task force to combat attacks on Muslims. White House spokesperson Robyn Patterson said:

President Biden and Vice President Harris have been unequivocal: there is no place for hate in America — not against Muslims, not against Arab Americans, not against Jews — not against anyone. On President Biden’s very first day in office, he rescinded the previous administration’s Muslim ban. He’s gone on to establish the first interagency task force to address attacks on Muslims and anti-Muslim bias and discrimination. President Biden has made clear that standing up against Islamophobia is essential to who we are as a country.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a member of the Democratic National Committee, expressed concern about recent rhetoric from Biden and his administration. He said:

There was no language of compassion for Palestinians in the initial statements. There was no call for a cease-fire or for restraint.

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Centre in Washington, D.C., said that in previous conversations with Biden officials last week, Arab-American and Muslim leaders “did raise the issue of domestic violence here and the need for the president to open his mouth and say this is not a war against fellow Americans.” He added that “at least on this issue they have done well.”

In the wake of al-Fayoume’s killing, some Muslim leaders also privately urged Biden that the president himself should speak directly about the tragedy. And he did. Biden said on Sunday:

The child’s Palestinian Muslim family came to America seeking what we all seek — a refuge to live, learn, and pray in peace. As Americans, we must come together and reject Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry and hatred. I have said repeatedly that I will not be silent in the face of hate. We must be unequivocal. There is no place in America for hate against anyone.

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