Rep. Rashida Tlaib confronted President Joe Biden on Tuesday about his continued financial and diplomatic support for the Israeli government while the death toll of Palestinian civilians continues to climb amid nonstop attacks.
Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, received the president with fellow Michigan Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell on a tarmac in Detroit. Biden and Tlaib were seen speaking for several minutes followed by a handshake. However, reporters were not able to hear the conversation.
The congresswoman conveyed to Biden that Palestinian human rights are not up for negotiation and that the president must do more to protect civilian lives, an aide to Tlaib later said. The Michigan Democrat also reiterated that the status quo is enabling more violence and death, and that the current and longtime U.S. approach of “unconditional support” for the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not working to stop the killing.
“The U.S. cannot continue to give the right-wing Netanyahu government billions each year to commit crimes against Palestinians,” the aide said, referencing the $3.8 billion in annual aid Congress sends to Israel. “Atrocities like bombing schools cannot be tolerated, much less conducted with U.S.-supplied weapons.”
Tlaib’s concerns echo her speech last week on the House floor, where she and several other progressive Democrats condemned Palestinians “being killed as the world watches” and the lack of recognition or action by U.S. leaders, including Biden.
“To read the statements … you’d hardly know Palestinians existed at all,” Tlaib said Thursday, a reference to the president’s press releases saying Israel has “a right to defend itself” against rockets from the Palestinian militant group Hamas but making no mention of the Palestinians who have been killed by the Israeli military.
“No child, Palestinian or Israeli, whoever they are, should ever have to worry that death will fall from the sky,” she added. “How many of my colleagues are willing to say the same, to stand for Palestinian human rights as they do for Israel? How many Palestinians have to die for their lives to matter?”
The exchange outside Air Force One on Tuesday was part of an “important dialogue,” Dingell told The New York Times. She said that, although it was a “compassionate, honest discussion,” Biden does not “deal with these kinds of issues in public, and he doesn’t negotiate in public.”
While speaking at an event later in Dearborn, which is 47% Arab American, Biden praised Tlaib (though repeatedly mispronouncing her name as “Rashid”) and said that he has committed to try to keep her family in the West Bank safe. Notably, he did not mention the Palestinian territory of Gaza nor the immediate need for widespread protection for Palestinian civilians. The West Bank is about 70 miles from Gaza and operates under different governance.
“I want to say I admire your intellect, I admire your passion and I admire your concern for so many other people. From my heart, I pray that your grandma and family are well. I promise you I’m going to do everything to see that they are, on the West Bank,” he said. “You’re a fighter, and God thank you for being a fighter.”
But Biden has refused to publicly condemn the violence against Palestinian civilians. White House press secretary Jen Psaki has been repeating to reporters for more than a week that the president wants to engage in “quiet diplomacy” via phone calls to leaders in the region. He has, however, publicly and vehemently defended Israel in its attacks. On Sunday, the U.S. blocked a United Nations Security Council vote to demand a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas ― the third time the administration has done so in the past week.
The White House released a carefully worded statement Monday saying that Biden “expressed his support for a ceasefire” during a call with Netanyahu, stopping short of actually calling for one. Netanyahu has repeatedly said that he has no intention of participating in a cease-fire.
The statement came after 29 Democrats and one Republican from the Senate released letters urging an immediate cease-fire, and after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a longtime defender of Israel, called for the same. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for a cease-fire on Tuesday.
But Biden’s lukewarm expression of support for a potential cease-fire was shadowed by the fact that his administration approved the sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel, raising concerns among Democrats criticizing Israel’s airstrikes that kill Palestinian families at a disproportionate rate. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) urged Biden to halt the sale, with Executive Director Nihad Awad saying the weapons include “the same type of missiles that have been used to kill more than 200 people in Gaza.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said Monday that he’d send a letter to the Biden administration calling for a delay in the sale in order to provide more time for congressional review. But the congressman said Tuesday he would no longer take such an action after the White House committed to brief and better engage with lawmakers on future sales.
Violence, which has long existed in the region, escalated significantly in the past few weeks after protests against the planned eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah. The protests led Israeli police to unleash violence on Palestinian civilians and worshippers in Al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.
The unrest sparked airstrikes from Israel into Gaza ― where Hamas governs ― and rockets from Hamas, most of which have been intercepted in the air by Israel’s missile defense system, called “Iron Dome,” preventing the mass casualties the world is seeing inflicted on Palestinians who don’t have the same protection.
Hamas rockets have killed a dozen people in Israel, including two children, according to the Israeli government. Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 218 Palestinians, according to Al Jazeera. Among the 63 Palestinian children killed, 11 were receiving psychosocial care from the Norwegian Refugee Council to help them process the trauma from the occupation.
“As an urgent measure, we appeal to all parties for an immediate ceasefire so that we can reach those in need and spare more civilians,” said NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland. “But the truth is that there can be no peace or security as long as there are systemic injustices. The siege of Gaza needs to be lifted and the occupation of Palestinians must end if we are to avoid more trauma and death among children and new cycles of destruction every few years.”