By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Arab and Muslim Americans and their allies are criticizing President Joe Biden’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, asking him to do more to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza or risk losing their support in the 2024 election.
Many Arab Americans are upset Biden has not pushed for any humanitarian ceasefire even as Palestinians are killed fleeing Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, more than a dozen academics, activists, community members and administration officials said.
Their growing frustration could impact Democrat Biden’s reelection bid, which opinion polls show is likely to be a rematch with the Republican frontrunner, former President Donald Trump.
In hotly contested Michigan, Arab Americans account for 5% of the vote. In other battleground states Pennsylvania and Ohio, they are between 1.7% to 2%, said Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.
Biden won Michigan with 50.6% of the vote in 2020, compared to 47.8% for Trump, and Pennsylvania with 50.01% to Trump’s 48.84%, a difference of less than 81,000 votes.
Arab and Muslim Americans are unlikely to back Trump but could sit out the election and not vote for Biden, some activists said.
“I do think it will cost him Michigan,” said Laila El-Haddad, a Maryland-based author and social activist from Gaza.
While condemning the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on civilians in Israel that killed 1,400 people, Arab Americans said the Israeli response was disproportionate and Biden’s failure to condemn the bombardment has many questioning his promise of a “human rights centered” foreign policy.
On Tuesday, U.S. officials joined the United Nations and Canada in pushing for a pause in Israel’s attacks on Gaza so food, water and medicine could be delivered to Palestinian civilians.
DEMANDS FOR POLICY CHANGE
Abdullah Hammoud, the first Arab American mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, home to the largest Muslim per capita population in the U.S., decried Biden’s failure to condemn Israeli threats to cut off water, electricity and food for over 2 million Palestinians in Gaza.
“Nothing could have prepared us for the complete erasure of our voices and radio silence from those whom we elected to protect and represent us,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Our family members trapped in Gaza have been ignored, our calls for a ceasefire drowned out by the drums of war.”
The White House said Biden and other U.S. officials have repeatedly pushed to get Americans in Gaza released, and Biden on Tuesday said aid arriving there was “not fast enough.”
Linda Sarsour, a former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, told hundreds of attendees at a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) event on Saturday that Muslim Americans should make any political donations contingent on a change in policies.
Many are pressuring Biden to push Israel to temporarily halt its attacks on the Gaza Strip that have killed thousands of Palestinians.
Israel’s bombing of Gaza is “now in the realm of genocide targeting the entire Palestinian population,” said CAIR, the largest Muslim civil rights group in the U.S., adding that government officials will be “complicit in the ethnic cleansing of Gaza” unless they intervene.
Biden’s push for more than $14 billion in new U.S. aid to Israel is also drawing fire.
“If you look at his rhetoric, it’s unbelievable, and now they are trying to pump billions and billions of dollars militarily into Israel, with some $100 million in humanitarian aid for the Palestinians,” said Sa’ed Atshan, a Quaker Palestinian American who teaches peace and conflict studies at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College.
Even Biden’s former boss, President Barack Obama, usually a staunch backer of Biden’s policies, offered some pointed public advice on Monday, calling on the U.S. to continue leading the world “in accelerating critical aid and supplies to an increasingly desperate Gaza population.”
WHITE HOUSE RESPONDS TO CRITICS
Biden has appointed more Arab Americans and Muslims to political posts than any predecessor, as well as the first two Muslim federal judges, but that diversity has not impacted policy for the self-described “Zionist” President.
Some Arab American and Muslim appointees are scared of backlash and reprisals and worried about family members in the region, said one White House official, who is Arab American.
“There are very vocal people in the administration who have concerns,” the official said. U.S. officials with family in the region are doubly stressed by the “ambassadorial” role they play as they field agitated messages from relatives and others angry at Biden’s Israel strategy.
The White House said it was aware of and responding to criticism of its policies by meeting with administration officials and community members, and underscored Biden’s efforts in public and behind the scenes to ensure aid reached Gaza. Biden has also made forceful speeches since taking office on the need to confront Islamophobia and hate of all kinds, it said.
Biden’s chief of staff Jeff Zients and adviser Anita Dunn are meeting staffers and community members and urging cabinet secretaries to do the same, White House officials said.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan and his principal deputy Jon Finer met with Arab and Muslim American community leaders on Oct. 13, and the White House officials hosted 30 Palestinian American youth on Friday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the personal difficulties some staff are facing in a Thursday letter, and met Monday with Palestinian and Arab American community leaders and Jewish American groups.
One 11-year State department veteran, the director of congressional and public affairs for its Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Josh Paul, quit his job last week. Top officials refused to respond to his concerns about “blindly rushing lethal arms to Israel while the people of Gaza face obliteration,” he said in a posting on LinkedIn.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; additional reporting by Kanishka Singh and Simon Lewis; Editing by Heather Timmons and Grant McCool)