World / April 12, 2024

The Outrage Over the World Central Kitchen Strike Shows the Strength of the Palestine Movement

It’s enraging that it’s taken so long for this kind of backlash to happen. But it’s happened only because of the tireless work of people dedicated to Palestinian liberation.

Y.L. Al-Sheikh
Screenshots of media coverage of the World Central Kitchen attack.
(ABC News; CBS News; CNN; BBC News)

The horrific recent air strike that killed seven aid workers affiliated with the World Central Kitchen relief group has generated more mainstream anger towards Israel than at any point in the preceding six months of the war on Gaza. Suddenly, it seems, criticism of Israel—and pressure to curb US support for the war—is no longer confined to the leftist corners so openly loathed by the political establishment.

President Biden’s stalwart ally Senator Chris Coons declared days after the strike that he would, for the first time ever, be willing to vote to condition military assistance to Israel. Senator Chris Van Hollen and a handful of his colleagues called on the State Department to conclude that Israel is violating US laws surrounding the delivery of humanitarian aid. As of today, more than 25 percent of House Democrats support halting arms transfers to Israel and conditioning future military assistance to Israel on its adherence to international law. After the World Central Kitchen massacre, those House Democrats now include Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosi, who once upon a time said that aid to Israel was sacrosanct under any circumstances.

“If you told any Democratic lawmaker six months ago that [Senate majority leader Chuck] Schumer and Pelosi would be leading the charge calling for early elections in Israel and conditioning future military aid—two points historically antithetical to their leadership platforms—they would have assumed you’d lost your mind,” Haaretz analyst Ben Samuels wrote on Thursday.

These demands are not limited to Democrats in Congress. While speaking on MSNBC, Richard Haass, an advisor to both Presidents Bush and the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, called for trade sanctions to be imposed on the Israeli settlement enterprise. Likewise, ex-Obama staffers have reiterated their criticism of Biden’s handling of the war.

It is valid to look at this newfound concern about Israel’s conduct in Gaza with cynicism and anger—and many are. After all, Israel has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and committed war crimes consistently since October. For months, humanitarian groups and human rights organizations have been warning the world that the systematic disruption of aid flow into the Gaza Strip was both a violation of international law and a recipe for further disaster. At least 200 Palestinian aid workers have been killed in the last half-year of bombardment. But none of those deaths prompted this kind of backlash. It was a strike that saw the murder of six foreign nationals and one Palestinian that opened the floodgates of rage in the United States—and it takes nothing away from the horror of the WCK attack to point out this discrepancy.

But while it feels awful that it took so long for this level of criticism towards Israel’s actions to come to the forefront—and only after an attack that killed foreign nationals—it is worth thinking about the reaction to the WCK massacre as not simply an instance of Western double standards but also a sign of the growing strength of the movement for Palestine.

While it may seem like things only began to change after the WCK strike, the reality is that we would not be where we are today if not for the surge in influence of the American left and the broader forces that seek a change in policy towards Israel/Palestine.

In 2014—the year of the bloodiest recent assault on Gaza prior to the current war—the existence of an avowedly pro-Palestinian bloc in Congress seemed like a pipe dream. Since then, though, the election of democratic socialists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Cori Bush has given us a fairly reliable group of representatives who are more willing to argue the Palestinian point of view and condemn Israeli violations of human rights. Tlaib in particular, as the only Palestinian in Congress, has been a vocal critic of the administration’s de-prioritization of Palestinian concerns for years and is as of now the only elected Democrat to openly support a single democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Likewise, left-wing and progressive organizations such as Democratic Socialists of America, IfNotNow, and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights have become more prominent in the fight for Palestinian liberation, thus applying intense pressure to the once-bipartisan consensus and moving the Democratic Party to the left.

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The generational and partisan gaps on the issue of Palestine that have become a significant factor in the last few months didn’t come out of nowhere either. Nearly half of all Democrats under 34 years old disapproved of President Biden’s handling of the Israel-Gaza crisis that exploded in May and June of 2021, and polling from early 2023 showed that, for the first time, more Democrats sympathized with Palestinians than with Israelis. Polling since October has consistently shown that the younger you are, the likelier you are to sympathize with Palestine.

These shifts have produced some interesting developments over the last few years. After Israel assassinated Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh in May 2022, for example, Van Hollen helped spearhead a sustained demand for accountability and transparency regarding her murder, and subsequently became one of the earlier advocates in the Senate during this war for conditioning aid to Israel on existing US human rights law. These changes only intensified after the current and most right-wing coalition in Israeli history assumed control of the state. Members from across the political spectrum of the Democratic Party, including national security centrists and liberals like Dick Durbin and Tim Kaine, began to more vocally vent their frustration toward the Biden administration’s failure to push back against human rights violations and settlement expansionism.

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Political developments like these helped lay the groundwork for the response to a war campaign that has killed over 34,000 Palestinians, including 13,000 children, and left more than 1,900,000 people internally displaced.

The contradictions that are laid bare by the Biden administration’s proclamation of a rules-based international order on the one hand and its unconditional support for Israel while it rampages through Gaza on the other have frayed the Democratic Party at a critical moment in an election year. An unprecedented campaign for the “uncommitted” ballot option in states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington has allowed activists and organizers to mobilize an aggrieved voting bloc, and many non-white Democratic voters in particular have expressed dismay that the president’s support for this war endangers his reelection bid.

In response to growing anger from the president’s base, the Biden administration finally reversed the Pompeo doctrine which had erroneously declared Israeli settlements to be in compliance with international law, and has issued modest sanctions toward a handful of Israeli settlers found to have committed acts of violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

These gestures have largely failed to lower the temperature, however, and the calls within the Democratic Party to go further in holding Israel accountable for its actions in Gaza have only grown as time goes on.

All of this is to say that, while we are correct to be angry that it has taken this long for these shifts to come to the forefront of American political consciousness, it is also important to remember that it has only happened because of the work of hundreds of thousands of people dedicated to Palestinian liberation and human rights for years.

Yes, it is clear that Western lives, or lives that are not orientalized in the eyes of the West, are considered to be more valuable and important than Palestinian lives. Yet it is unfortunately not all that difficult to imagine the United States brushing off the killing of the WCK aid workers if not for the pressure being piled on in the months and years before that moment. Americans and other Westerners, after all, have been killed by the Israeli army before. Shireen Abu Aqleh was a US citizen. The heroic Rachel Corrie was killed in occupied Rafah almost exactly 21 years ago. Now, Rafah is threatened with a full-scale invasion while over a million internally displaced refugees are living there in tents. It is because of indomitable people like Corrie, and the strength and courage of the Palestinian people and their allies, that it is more difficult to ignore the horrors of the occupation today.

It is incumbent upon us to use our anger and our frustration to honor all of the humanitarian aid workers who have been killed by Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment, as well as all of the Palestinians in Gaza who have been killed or displaced, by continuing the struggle to end the occupation and apartheid system. It is also incumbent upon us to make sure that this horror ends in our lifetimes. With the dam now broken, the time to end America’s support for war and reorient toward a struggle for peace and justice for Jews and Palestinians alike is today.

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Y.L. Al-Sheikh

Y.L. Al-Sheikh is a Palestinian American writer and organizer active in the Democratic Socialists of America and in international solidarity work between Israel/Palestine and the United States.

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