Heba Mohammad poured her energy and her considerable skills into electing Joe Biden president in 2020. As the digital organizing director for the Democrat’s campaign in the critical swing state of Wisconsin, she was one of the great mass of young people who powered the Biden campaign to victory. But as the Biden administration has failed to take a firm stand in defense of Palestinian rights in recent weeks, Mohammad has grown increasingly frustrated with the man she did so much to elect. She says she felt “deep dismay watching the president’s limited response to what was happening in Gaza.”
Mohammad isn’t alone. After images of the death and devastation following Israeli air strikes on Gaza filled screens across the United States in mid-May, activists who worked to elect Biden began to communicate among themselves on how to get a message to the president and other senior Democrats about the need for a shift in US policy that focuses on achieving justice for the Palestinian people.
On Monday, more than 500 of these 2020 campaign staffers signed a letter demanding that the Biden administration abandon a status-quo approach to Israel and Palestine that “deprives Palestinians of peace, security, and self-determination.” Addressed to the president, the letter explains, “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.”
The letter comes at a point when Biden and his aides have faced criticism from Democratic members of Congress such as Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, and Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan for failing to focus sufficiently on the dislocation of Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as Israeli air strikes that have left hundreds dead in Gaza. As in the 1960s, when many of the Democratic Party’s savviest officials and ablest activists broke with President Lyndon Johnson over the war in Vietnam, this is shaping up as a moment when dynamic young activists—and more than a few of their elders—are warning that the president and party leaders must wake up to that fact that, as Mohammad says, “from here on out, we will not allow our Democratic officials and candidates to be silent on Palestine.”
The signatures on the letter to Biden include those of 10 members of his 2020 campaign’s national headquarters staff and eight members of the Democratic National Committee staff during the race. But most of the signers worked at the states where Biden won the presidency—including the five battleground states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, which flipped from the Republican column in 2016 to the Democratic side in 2020. Drafted by a coalition of Palestinian American, Israeli American, Jewish, and allied former staffers, the letter offers a knowing and nuanced take on the violence in the Middle East, explaining:
We remain horrified by the images of Palestinian civilians in Gaza killed or made homeless by Israeli airstrikes. We are outraged by Israel’s efforts to forcibly and illegally expel Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah. We are shocked by Israel’s destruction of a building housing international news organizations. We remain horrified by reports of Hamas rockets killing Israeli civilians.
While Israelis had to spend nights hiding in bomb shelters, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip had nowhere to hide. It is critical to acknowledge this power imbalance—that Israel’s highly-advanced military occupies the West Bank and East Jerusalem and blockades the Gaza Strip, creating an uninhabitable open-air prison. While we should never reduce the loss of human life to numbers, Palestinians have suffered hundreds of casualties, demonstrative of Israel’s power over Palestinians and its penchant for disproportionate responses. Israel’s protracted refusal to consider a ceasefire also put Israelis in harm’s way, prolonging the violence of Hamas’s barrage of rockets and Israel’s air strikes—a cycle that is bound to repeat itself as long as we allow the status quo to stand, where Palestinians have no freedom and Israel controls their lives in perpetuity.
Matan Arad-Neeman, an Israeli American co-author of the letter who worked as a campaign organizer in Arizona, said, “As an Israeli American proud to have helped elect Biden in Arizona, I am horrified by the daily nightmare of occupation and apartheid. American inaction on human rights violations by the Israeli government, all while the administration continues to sell weapons to Israel, does not help my family in Israel or keep them safe.”
Mohammad, a Palestinian American who worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 as well as directing digital organizing in Wisconsin last year for Biden, echoed that view, and added, “President Biden must do better. A cease-fire in this latest bombing campaign is welcomed, but Palestinian suffering continues because there has not been a cessation in Israel’s blockade of Gaza, land annexation in the West Bank, mass arrests and raids, ethnic cleansing, illegal occupation, and the 73-year cycle of dispossession.”
In order to do better, the letter urges the Biden administration to “acknowledge that a temporary peace is not a suitable long-term resolution” and “to take concrete steps to end the occupation in pursuit of justice, peace, and self-determination for Palestinians.” Those steps include demanding that the Israeli government “allow a humanitarian corridor in Gaza to allow for the evacuation of the injured, as well as for the supply of life-saving medicines; take action to protect Palestinians in Israel subject to ongoing violent attacks by Israeli mobs that operate with the protection of Israeli police; lift the blockade of Gaza, which has made it an uninhabitable open-air prison; end the forced expulsions of Palestinians in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Sheikh Jarrah and from all Palestinian homes across the territories; end settlement expansion in the West Bank.”
In addition, the former staffers are urging US leaders to “join our international allies in calling for an end to Israeli violations of international law, or at minimum, stop obstructing efforts by the United Nations to do so” and “ensure U.S. aid no longer funds the imprisonment and torture of Palestinian children, theft and demolition of Palestinian homes and property, and annexation of Palestinian land.”
“The Biden administration could take these tangible steps today,” says Juliana Amin, a co-author of the letter who helped lead the coordinated campaign in Iowa. “Democratic voters are waiting for their leaders to catch up to an increasingly popular moral conscience on this crisis, which demands accountability for the Israeli government’s actions and supports Palestinian self-determination.”