Democratic campaign staffers who helped President Joe Biden win the election are now speaking out against his State Department’s decision to approve a widely criticized $735 million weapon sale to Israel without congressional review and amid heightened tensions in the region that have led to hundreds of deaths.
The former campaign staffers, who are of Palestinian and Israeli descent, as well as of Jewish faith, said Tuesday that the approval is “undemocratic,” evades accountability and is unpopular among many of the Democratic voters who elected Biden.
“I am outraged by this flagrant denial of even an effort to ensure human rights accountability. For a majority of Americans, including for me as a young Israeli American Jew, Palestinian rights are no exception and should not be treated as such in our foreign military assistance,” said Matan Arad-Neeman, an organizer in Arizona and one of the staffers speaking out.
This month, the Israeli government and Hamas fought for 11 days after the Gaza militant group fired rockets into Israel ― a move that came after Israeli law enforcement attacked Palestinians in and around Al-Aqsa mosque, a holy site in East Jerusalem. Palestinians were protesting the Israeli government’s ongoing efforts to forcefully evict them from East Jerusalem, which has been designated as a Palestinian territory.
Hamas’s rockets into Israel were largely stopped by its missile defense system but nevertheless killed 12 Israelis. The resulting Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, which does not have a missile defense system, killed at least 248 Palestinian civilians ― including at least 66 children ― and destroyed homes and institutions, leaving tens of thousands of Gazans displaced. After much resistance, the Israeli government agreed to a cease-fire with Hamas after Biden publicly called for the halt in warfare.
Tuesday’s statement by former campaign staffers was made by co-authors of an open letter made a day earlier to the president, calling on him to support Palestinians’ right to safety, security and self-determination, as well as to hold the Israeli government accountable for what international and Israeli human rights entities have concluded are crimes that amount to apartheid. The letter was signed by more than 500 alumni of the Biden for President and Democratic Party 2020 campaigns.
“The very same values that motivated us to work countless hours to elect you demand that we speak out in the aftermath of the recent explosive violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, which is inextricable from the ongoing history of occupation, blockade and settlement expansion. We remain horrified by the images of Palestinian civilians in Gaza killed or made homeless by Israeli airstrikes,” the letter stated.
“We thank you for your work to end the most recent round of violence between Israel and Hamas. To ensure a lasting ceasefire and a future of peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, we ask that you work to end the underlying conditions of occupation, blockade, and settlement expansion that led to this exceptionally destructive period in a 73-year history of dispossession and ethnic cleansing,” it continued. “Finally, we are deeply concerned that Israel continues to use U.S.-funded military equipment to kill civilians, target journalists, and violently suppress protests in Israel, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.”
Among the demands in the letter is for the administration to ensure U.S. aid no longer funds the Israeli government’s efforts to attack and displace Palestinians while attempting to annex their land. It also demands the U.S. investigate whether Israel’s most recent attacks on Gaza violate the Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. military aid from funding foreign military units involved in human rights violations.
The Biden administration committed more than $5 million on Tuesday to help rebuild Gaza after Israel’s bombings, which destroyed and damaged medical facilities, homes, newsrooms and roads, along with the human toll. But the humanitarian aid came days after the State Department bypassed congressional review and opposition, secretly approving the $735 million sale of bombs to Israel, according to Jewish Currents.
A congressional staffer told the publication that the department granted Boeing an export license on May 21 for the sale of Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Small Diameter Bombs. The weapons are the type of laser-guided munitions Israel reportedly used in the bombardment of Gaza.
The U.S. government has given humanitarian aid to Palestinians for decades to help avoid uprisings that would provoke Israel’s government. Also for decades, the U.S. has annually provided Israel $3.8 billion in military aid that helps fund its attacks on Palestinians. The Biden administration’s decision to sell weapons to Israel is consistent with past administrations of both parties, however the move to carry out the sale during increased violence in the region has raised eyebrows among U.S. civilians and lawmakers, particularly progressives.
“As a former 2008 Obama/Biden campaign staffer, I can’t be any prouder of those who came together, rooted in human rights and justice, to demand accountability of our own country & the active role we are playing in violating those values by funding the killing of Palestinians,” tweeted Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American congresswoman. The Michigan Democrat has been vocal about the U.S.’s response to the violence in Gaza, and she directly confronted Biden last week about his delay in calling for a cease-fire.
The Arms Export Control Act allows Congress to block a planned arms sale through a joint resolution of disapproval, with such measures automatically entitled to a Senate vote. Though it takes a simple majority to pass a resolution of disapproval, it would require a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override a presidential veto.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Tlaib and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) introduced resolutions last week to block the weapon sale, with lawmakers and human rights advocates arguing that the State Department should have waited for congressional review, even if the department had the power to proceed with the sale. Both resolutions were likely to fail, but the moves mark a historic break from the Democratic Party’s collective and unconditional support of Israel.
Sanders will no longer try to force a Senate vote to stop the weapon sale to Israel after finding out on Friday that the State Department had finalized the deal, according to Jewish Currents and The Wall Street Journal. The senator instead responded to the sale by placing a hold on all State Department nominees, blocking Congress from considering them for diplomatic posts.
Sanders lifted the hold after the Biden administration committed to Palestinian humanitarian aid but said that “he and his colleagues would continue to push for greater debate to make sure that U.S. arms sales do not support human rights abuses.”