Democrats take tougher stance against Israel as conflict escalates

Biden draw backlash from some in his party for condemning the violence and asserting Israel's right to defend itself

There is a growing schism in the Democratic Party over the U.S. relationship with Israel as some progressive lawmakers demand that President Biden take a tougher stance against the Israeli government amid an increasingly aggressive confrontation with Palestinian groups. 

The divide comes amid the worst violence between Israel and Palestinians since the devastating 2014 war in Gaza. The outbreak began in east Jerusalem when Palestinian protests and clashes with police broke out in response to Israeli police tactics during Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers. 

Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, then launched a sustained rocket campaign targeting civilian areas in Israel; in response, Israel has directed heavy artillery and airstrikes into Gaza, killing at least 180 people, including 55 children and 33 women. Over 1,200 people have been wounded. Eight people in Israel have been killed, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier. 

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Biden condemned the violence and asserted Israel's right to defend itself, eliciting a swift backlash from some members of his own party who wanted the president to address what they viewed as human rights violations by Israeli forces in Gaza.

"This is happening with the support of the United States," Rep.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on Saturday, tweeting a video of Israel bombing, and destroying, a building that housed media organizations including Al Jazeera and the Associated Press. (Israel contended the buildings contained Hamas cells).

"I don’t care how any spokesperson tries to spin this," the New York firebrand continued. "The US vetoed the UN call for ceasefire. If the Biden admin can’t stand up to an ally, who can it stand up to? How can they credibly claim to stand for human rights?"

Ocasio-Cortez is among the activist lawmakers pushing the U.S. to condition the billions in aid it provides to Israel.  

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., suggested on the House floor last week that the U.S. should consider conditioning aid to the country "if our budgets are a statement of our values, what do we value? Whose lives do we value?"

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"We cannot stand idly and complicitly by and allow the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people to continue," Pressley said. "I am committed to ensuring that our government does not fund state violence in any form, anywhere… The question at hand is should our taxpayer dollars create conditions for justice, healing and repair, or should those dollars create conditions for oppression and apartheid?"

At the same time, more than two dozen House Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on him to use diplomatic pressure to prevent the displacement of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, according to The Wall Street Journal. Ocasio-Cortez, one of the letter's signatories, questioned U.S. aid to the Jewish state.

"The United States needs to take responsibility for the violence that we are supporting," she told the Journal on Friday. "We can’t advance this idea that we’re some neutral party in this situation if our actions are consistently targeting Palestinians."

And in a New York Times op-ed on Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., similarly urged the White House to speak out against the Israeli government's actions, arguing that U.S. involvement is vital to de-escalation. 

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"If the United States is going to be a credible voice on human rights on the global stage, we must uphold international standards of human rights consistently, even when it’s politically difficult," Sanders wrote. "We must recognize that Palestinian rights matter. Palestinian lives matter."

But their increasingly vocal criticism of Israel puts them at odds with Biden, who rejected the idea of leveraging U.S. aid during the 2020 Democratic primary. 

"Look, I have been on record from very early on opposed to the settlements, and I think it’s a mistake, and President Netanyahu knows my position," he said during the primary. "But the idea that we would draw military assistance from Israel on the condition that they change a specific policy I find to be absolutely outrageous."

The Associated Press contributed to this report