Protesters press for Gaza ceasefire
Biden, Congress back Israeli response
Fatema Ahmed wanted desperately to talk to Sen. Elizabeth Warren about Israel’s war in Gaza. On Nov. 6, while Warren was speaking in Boston’s City Hall at a news conference on student debt, Ahmed, the executive director of the Muslim Justice League, waited patiently until the conference ended, then pressed forward as Warren left the stage.
“Senator Warren, my organization has worked with you in the past,” was all Ahmed was able to blurt out before an aide and several police officers intercepted her and whisked Warren to an elevator.
“It was clear that she and the police understood people were there to ask her about a ceasefire,” Ahmed said. “She is one of the most progressive people in the Senate. Why isn’t she taking the lead on this?”
Despite majorities of Democrat, Republican and independent voters favoring a ceasefire, according to an Oct. 20 Quinnipiac University poll, Warren is far from alone in her reluctance to even discuss a ceasefire in the midst of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza — a campaign human rights activists are calling a genocide. All but one of Warren’s colleagues in the Senate, all but 18 House members and President Joe Biden support Israel’s attack on Gaza, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives — including those of 4,500 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
This attack, Israel’s sixth since 2005, was triggered when Hamas, which controls Gaza, sent soldiers into Israel on Oct. 7 and overran a military base and several Israeli communities, killing more than 1,200 Israelis and seizing more than 200 hostages.
Since then, Israel’s military leaders have stated clearly their willingness to target civilians in Gaza, with Israeli Defense Force spokesman Daniel Hagari telling reporters, “We are dropping hundreds of tons of bombs on Gaza. The focus is on destruction, not accuracy.”
Using more than 25,000 tons of precision-guided bombs supplied and paid for in part with the $4 billion a year in military aid from the United States, Israel has struck refugee camps, mosques, a 900-year-old church in which Muslims and Christians were seeking refuge, bakeries, schools, water tanks, solar panels and other infrastructure that supports the 2.2 million Palestinians who live in what is considered to be one of the most densely-populated places on earth.
Yet just one U.S. senator — Dick Durbin of Illinois — has called for a ceasefire. In the House, just 18 members — all of them people of color — have signed on to Missouri Rep. Cori Bush’s resolution calling for a ceasefire, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley.
At the same time, Biden and Congress are debating how much military aid to send to Israel, with an overwhelming majority of Republican House members voting in favor of an aid package that would send Israel $14 billion.
The support for more military aid to Israel comes against the backdrop of anti-war protests that have drawn thousands in American cities and college campuses and outside the offices of members of Congress.
“What we’re witnessing right now is the rebirth of the anti-war movement, and this one is centering Palestinians,” said Beth Miller, political director of the Washington-based Jewish Voice for Peace Action. “It’s unlike anything I have seen before in doing this work. There is a clear popular demand for a ceasefire, and Biden’s posture on this to beat the drums of war. D.C. is wildly out of touch with what the majority of Americans want.”
The widening gulf between popular support for a ceasefire and politicians’ staunch support of Israel’s bombardment stems from the converging interests of the political elite in the United States, American defense contractors and Israel, one of the most heavily militarized nations in the world, according to Lea Kayali, a Boston-based organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement.
“On a practical level, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is a core part of the military-industrial complex and U.S. imperial interests,” Kayali said. “Raytheon, Elbit Systems, and Boeing — all of which have offices in Massachusetts — are cashing in on the slaughter of Palestinians. Massachusetts representatives seem to care more about these companies’ bottom lines than human lives.”
Defense contractors spent more than $100 million on lobbying in the first three quarters of the 2022 congressional midterm-election year, an Open Secrets analysis found. The contractors stand to gain handsome profits from Israel’s bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza. As a condition for receiving U.S. aid, Israel is required to spend at least $1.2 billion a year with U.S. suppliers. The fighter jets and bombs Israel is deploying against Gazans are manufactured in the U.S.
Another factor that may make some elected officials hesitant to call for a ceasefire is lobbying from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a group that has historically mobilized against members of Congress who have sought to put conditions on American military aid to Israel.
In the 2022 election cycle, AIPAC and its super PAC, United Democracy Project, spent millions to defeat candidates opposed to Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory. A spokesman for the group told the magazine Jewish Currents that 95% of the candidates AIPAC supported won their races.
Additionally, many Democratic lawmakers may be hesitant to buck the Biden administration on its support for Israel for fear of losing party support, according to Jewish Voice for Peace Action’s Miller.
“Democrats in Congress don’t want to appear out of step,” Miller said. “If you step out of line, you risk losing your seat.”
But public opinion may also have shifted in response to Israeli governments that have become increasingly right-wing over the years, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers more stridently calling for complete Israeli control over all Palestinian lands.
“The Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel,” Netanyahu said in a December 2022 post on Twitter. “The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea and Samaria,” he added.
Bill Fletcher, former president of TransAfrica said, “The ideology of Zionism has become so corrosive, it’s putting the entire Israel project in jeopardy.”
As public opinion has quietly shifted away from reflexive support for Israel, demonstrations in support of Palestine have become larger, with chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine sprouting up on college campuses around the U.S.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have drawn crowds of demonstrators during public appearances around the country in recent days. Jewish Voice for Peace and the anti-occupation group IfNotNow held demonstrations at the U.S. Capitol, at the Statue of Liberty and in Grand Central Station and have targeted lawmakers, including Warren, protesting outside their offices.
The demonstrations have been larger than any previous pro-Palestinian protests, observers say.
“What we’re seeing in recent demonstrations is a new generation that has broken with the old norms,” Fletcher said. “They see Israel as a settler colony like the Boers in South Africa.”
As a Palestinian American, Kayali sees hope in the public opinion shifts in the United States and around the world, despite the intransigence of elected leaders.
“The people of the global majority want to see an end to this genocide and a free Palestine. Some of them are just afraid to speak up,” she said. “What I would say to those people is this: We are in a moment that will define history. Your children and grandchildren will ask you what side of history you were on. Everyone, including Palestinians, deserves to live in freedom and dignity, but unfortunately, in our world we have to fight for that.”