A group of 60 House Democrats is urging the Biden administration to emphasize the U.S. does not support forcing Palestinians out of Gaza and to firmly resist any Israeli plans that would include expulsion as a resolution to the Israel-Hamas war.
In a letter sent to Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Thursday and shared exclusively with HuffPost, a group of lawmakers led by Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) wrote: “Any forced expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza would only exacerbate the trauma and pain Palestinian civilians in Gaza are already experiencing as a result of this conflict and cause more regional tension and conflict for decades to come. We have serious concerns both about extremist rhetoric from some Israeli officials and about proposals being floated by some in the Israeli government for the transfer of Palestinian civilians out of Gaza.”
President Joe Biden has sent mixed signals about his administration’s stance. On the one hand, he, Blinken and other top officials publicly say an expulsion of Gazans is unacceptable. But in October, the Biden administration sent Congress a request for additional military and humanitarian aid for the region that specifically sought money to “address potential needs of Gazans fleeing to neighboring countries.” That funding request is still under consideration by legislators.
“We aim to prevent any confusion or misinterpretation that this funding request could in any way signal U.S. support for the potential transfer of Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip. We ask for a clarification of the U.S. position,” the legislators write. “The United States must remain committed, as you have stated on many occasions, to a future in which all Israelis and Palestinians live in peace with equal rights, dignity, and freedom.”
In recent months, statements from a number of Israeli officials and organizations have raised concerns about the potential of forced displacement. Far-right Israeli minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have called for the “voluntary emigration” of Palestinians out of Gaza, Israel’s intelligence ministry drafted a proposal for resettling Gazans in Egypt and Israeli officials have privately pushed the idea to foreign counterparts.
The message is the latest sign that Democrats on Capitol Hill have a growing level of discomfort with Biden’s near-total support for Israel’s response to an Oct. 7 attack by Gaza-based militants led by the Palestinian militant group Hamas that killed 1,200 Israelis. Israel’s U.S.-backed offensive in Gaza since then has killed more than 24,000 people, destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, spurred a major humanitarian crisis among nearly 2 million displaced people and involved numerous alleged war crimes.
On Thursday, HuffPost revealed that House Democrats are preparing to call for the resignation of Biden’s controversial Middle East advisor, Brett McGurk, and earlier in the week, more than 20% of Senate Democrats publicly supported a bill from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) seeking a State Department investigation of Israeli human rights practices. Although the bill ultimately failed, it showed Democrats’ increasing willingness to challenge current U.S. Israel policy.
“The displacement of Palestinians in Gaza is a devastating consequence of the Israeli military’s indiscriminate bombing campaign… we cannot allow that displacement to become permanent,” Pressley told HuffPost in a Friday email. “I support the Administration’s strong opposition to the forced displacement of Palestinians in Gaza and urge them to reaffirm this position in light of the dangerous, extremist rhetoric from Israeli officials. Diplomacy is the only path to peace, which is why we need an immediate ceasefire to save lives, return hostages, and deliver the humanitarian aid desperately needed in Gaza.”
Washington has resisted calls to take serious steps to force Israeli restraint or to demand an Israel-Hamas cease-fire, even as Israel’s leadership has blown past U.S. deadlines and expectations for easing the fighting. Israeli forces are now engaging in heavy fighting in southern Gaza, where Israel officials had previously told Palestinian civilians they could go for safety. On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rejected the idea of Palestinian statehood or even significant Palestinian control in Gaza after the war.
Deportation or forced transfer of civilians amid a war is a violation of international humanitarian law. Much of Gaza’s population already descends from Palestinians who were pushed out of their homes amid the creation of Israel in 1948. In South Africa’s ongoing case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, in which initial arguments were presented last week, lawyers for South Africa are citing internal displacement of Gazans as evidence that Israel intends to commit genocide. Israel, the case claims, is seeking to eradicate a significant portion of Palestinians by pushing them out of their homes in Gaza and destroying residences. Israel denies the charges.
The language the lawmakers highlight in Biden’s supplemental request to Congress has sparked alarm among activists and drawn criticism for months. In October, a spokesperson for the National Security Council at the White House told HuffPost it was not intended to endorse forcible transfer.
“That is just one of a number of the potential listed justifications on that page of the request and is after assistance for those displaced within Gaza and the West Bank. It’s included because the U.S. government prepares for all possible contingencies, such as if people become displaced and flee to neighboring countries, not because we think that this will happen or is likely to happen,” the spokesperson wrote in an email that included the bold and underlined emphasis.
“We requested humanitarian aid funding from Congress because we are prioritizing the humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians,” the spokesperson continued. “While we do support safe passage for Palestinian civilians, the U.S. does not support forced displacement of Palestinians to neighboring countries as the President and [NSC strategic communications chief John] Kirby said.”
HuffPost previously revealed that Biden’s special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues, David Satterfield, had in the fall privately raised the idea of moving Palestinian civilians from Gaza into Egypt — a nonstarter for both Palestinians and Egyptians. State Department spokespeople deny he did so.
Satterfield is set to leave his post in the coming weeks, HuffPost revealed on Saturday.