Politics / October 12, 2023

Omar and Tlaib Are Condemned in the US for Saying What Prominent Israelis Are Saying

The White House is ripping Squad members for proposing de-escalation and diplomacy to stop the killing of Israelis and Palestinians.

John Nichols
Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) enters the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, July 25, 2023.

Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) enters the US Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, July 25, 2023.

(Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via AP)

Rarely in American history has a White House spokesperson so unceremoniously called out members of the president’s own party in the language that press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre employed Tuesday. Jean-Pierre was asked to comment on the statements by a handful of progressive Democratic US House members calling for a cease-fire and other urgent steps to end escalating violence that, since Saturday’s horrific assault by Hamas on Israeli communities, and the ensuing horrific Israeli bombing of population centers in Gaza, has left more than 2,200 Israelis and Palestinians dead. She did not hold back.

“We believe they’re wrong. We believe they’re repugnant and we believe they’re disgraceful,” Jean-Pierre said. “Our condemnation belongs squarely with terrorists who have brutally murdered, raped, kidnapped, hundreds, hundreds of Israelis. There can be no equivocation about that. There are not two sides here. There are not two sides.”

Though she did not specifically mention the names of Democratic US Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Cori Bush of Missouri, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and several other House members, there was no confusion about the targets of Jean-Pierre’s remarks.

So what sort of “repugnant” things have these House Democrats been saying in the days since Hamas gunmen massacred Israeli civilians at a music festival and kibbutzim, and since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “we are at war” and promised that Israel’s military would strike targets in Gaza with a force “like never before”? What “disgraceful” statements have been made since Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza—blocking access to electricity, food, water, and fuel for an enclave that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on Wednesday described as “an open-air prison, with millions of people struggling to secure basic necessities”?

On the day before Jean-Pierre spoke, Omar said, “Just as we honor the humanity of the hundreds of innocent Israeli civilians and 9 Americans who were killed this weekend, we must honor the humanity of the innocent Palestinian civilians who have been killed and whose lives are upended.”

After detailing conditions on the ground in Gaza, Omar, who came to the United States as a refugee from violence in Somalia, told her fellow Americans,

We must learn from the mistakes of our own war on terror—that military action alone rarely addresses the root causes. That peace and justice will not come from the barrel of a gun. And that targeting an entire civilian population will only sow more discord and perpetuate the cycle of violence. The solution to this horror, as ever, is a negotiated peace—with Israelis and Palestinians enjoying equal rights and security guarantees. Instead of continuing unconditional weapons sales and military aid to Israel, I urge the United States at long last to use its diplomatic might to push for peace.

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That wasn’t a welcome opinion in Washington’s official circles this week. Nor was Tlaib’s statement, which bemoaned the loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives and added,

The failure to recognize the violent reality of living under siege, occupation, and apartheid makes no one safer. No person, no child anywhere should have to suffer or live in fear of violence. We cannot ignore the humanity in each other.

Former House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) slammed Tlaib, while House Republicans moved to block the Palestinian American representative from displaying the Palestinian flag that’s hung outside her office since the opening of the current Congress. Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) said, “It sickens me” to hear colleagues question unconditional weapons sales to Israel.

And Senator Sanders—though he explicitly criticized “Hamas’ terrorist assault on Israel,” and said the United States had “rightly offered solidarity and support to Israel in responding to Hamas’ attack”— faced sharp criticism from conservative media commentators on Wednesday, after he argued, “The targeting of civilians is a war crime, no matter who does it. Israel’s blanket denial of food, water, and other necessities to Gaza is a serious violation of international law and will do nothing but harm innocent civilians.”

In much of the world, however, statements like those that are drawing so much condemnation in the US would not be considered particularly radical. Indeed, if American political and media elites are sincere when they say they are repulsed and sickened by criticisms of Israeli policies, and by measured statements calling for de-escalation strategies, then they would surely be shocked by conversations that have taken place inside Israel since October 7—because a number of high-profile Israelis have been making statements that sound a lot like those coming from Omar, Tlaib, and Sanders.

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Consider Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and top adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who told the BBC, “If anyone told me that what the militants did on the weekend was a legitimate response to years and years of occupation. I would say: ‘No, you’re wrong-headed. You’ve lost sight of humanity and reality.’ And if anyone tells me that what Israel is doing in Gaza today is a legitimate response to what happened on the weekend, it’s exactly the same.”

Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, an expert on the rules of war, observed Wednesday that “Hamas committed abominable war crimes for which there can be no forgiveness. But the laws of war weren’t meant only for situations in which our blood is cool, or when there is no justified anger or understandable desire for revenge.” The lawyer explained:

It’s not easy for Israelis to think about Gazans’ rights in a week when Hamas committed crimes that are still impossible to digest and our whole society is mourning and crying. But Gaza’s catastrophe won’t wait for the end of our seven-day shivah.

Consequently, this needs to be said: Israel has held millions of people under a brutal blockade for more than 15 years with the support of the entire Western world. That is inhumane and inconceivable, and every solution to this bloody conflict ultimately includes respecting the rights of all people, both in Gaza and Sderot, to live with security and human dignity. And that begins with respecting the most basic rules as set down in the international laws of war, which are designed to reduce the harm to civilians.

Widely known commentators offered candid criticism of Israeli leaders and Western officials who back them without questions or conditions.

In an article headlined “Arriving Again at the Cycle of Vengeance,” Amira Hass, who for more than three decades has reported from the West Bank and Gaza, reflected on Saturday’s murders and kidnappings of hundreds of Israeli citizens by Hamas and the Israeli government’s decision to launch bombing attacks that have already killed hundreds of Palestinians.

“The automatic Israeli conclusion, as on previous occasions when its normalcy was shattered a bit, is that if death and destruction haven’t achieved their goal until now, more aerial killings of Palestinians and more destruction and vengeance are the answer. That’s the conclusion of both the government and the army, but also of many Israelis,” wrote Hass. “And it’s also apparently the conclusion reached by Western governments, which raced to voice support for Israel while ignoring Israel’s structural violence and cruelty, and the context of the Palestinian people’s ongoing dispossession from their land.”

A child of Jewish Holocaust survivors who has been honored with the International Press Institute’s “World Press Freedom Hero” award and a Reporters Without Borders Prize for Press Freedom, Hass observed after the Hamas attacks:

In a few days Israelis went through what Palestinians have experienced as a matter of routine for decades, and are still experiencing—military incursions, death, cruelty, slain children, bodies piled up in the road, siege, fear, anxiety over loved ones, captivity, being targets of vengeance, indiscriminate lethal fire at both those involved in the fighting (soldiers) and the uninvolved (civilians), a position of inferiority, destruction of buildings, ruined holidays or celebrations, weakness and helplessness in the face of all-powerful armed men, and searing humiliation.

Therefore, this must be said once again—we told you so. Ongoing oppression and injustice explode at unexpected times and places. Bloodshed knows no borders.

Hass is one of the most prominent journalists in the Middle East. She writes for Haaretz, the 105-year-old Tel Aviv–based daily newspaper that the Center for Research Libraries says is “considered the most influential and respected [Israeli paper] for both its news coverage and its commentary.” Not everyone in Israel shares that view. Haaretz is frequently criticized by Israeli political leaders—and plenty of citizens—who accuse it of being too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. And there are many popular publications with different views. Yet Haaretz’s reporting is highly regarded; indeed, some of the most harrowing accounts of Saturday’s bloodshed and violence were written by Haaretz journalists—including a piece by Amir Tibon, a resident of a kibbutz that was attacked by Hamas who recounted how he and his family spent “hours in the bomb shelter with armed terrorists on the other side of the wall” before finally being rescued by his father, a retired military commander.

Widely read and referenced, Haaretz is very much a part of the debate in Israel.

Often bluntly so. Hours after the October 7 attack, the newspaper’s editorial declared, “The disaster that befell Israel on the holiday of Simchat Torah is the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, who has prided himself on his vast political experience and irreplaceable wisdom in security matters, completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, when appointing [extreme right-wingers] to key positions, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”

Plenty of Israeli readers disagreed with the editorial, just as plenty of Americans disagree with calls for de-escalation from Omar and Tlaib, the only two Muslim women currently serving in Congress.

But to dismiss the views of Omar, Tlaib, and other dissenting voices in Congress by saying, “There are not two sides here…” is to reject the reality that there are many sides to the debate in Israel, in Palestine, and in the United States. Labeling arguments that recognize the humanity of everyone involved, and that propose strategies for breaking cycles of violence, as sickening and “repugnant” diminishes reasoned debate at a point when it is more necessary than ever.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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