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Biden's refusal to criticize Israel killing civilians undermines his pledge to prioritize human rights

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Joe Biden
President Joe Biden arrives at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Detroit, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Evan Vucci/Associated Press
  • Progressives and rights groups are calling out Biden over his response to Israel.

  • Biden has refrained from criticizing Israel over its approach to renewed fighting with Hamas.

  • Critics say Biden's approach undermines his pledge to prioritize human rights.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

President Joe Biden has refused to explicitly criticize Israel as it's pummeled Gaza with airstrikes over the past week - killing dozens of Palestinian civilians in the process - and rights groups and some Democrats in Congress say it undermines his pledge to have a foreign policy centered on human rights.

Biden's approach to the renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas over the past week has not marked a major departure from how past US presidents responded to flare ups in the Middle East conflict. The president has repeatedly touted Israel's right to self-defense against Hamas attacks, while ripping into the Palestinian militant group for firing rockets toward civilian areas in Israel. Twelve people in Israel, including two children, have been killed by the rocket attacks, per CBS News.

But Biden hasn't publicly criticized Israel over its tactics in the fighting or the mounting number of civilian deaths in Gaza amid the offensive, which has included at least 61 children, according to Gaza Health Ministry. The death toll in Gaza has risen to at least 212 people.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International on Monday said Israel's strikes exhibit "shocking disregard" for Palestinian civilians and "may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity."

Gaza
Palestinians carry the body of a child found in the rubble of a house belonging to the Al-Tanani family, that was destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in town of Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, May 13, 2021. Abdel Kareem Hana/Associated Press

Biden has also refrained from addressing the central, underlying causes of the violence - Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, the economy-crippling blockade on Gaza, and efforts to push Palestinians out of East Jerusalem. Top rights groups have characterized Israel's treatment of Palestinians as a form of apartheid.

As Biden maintains the status quo, the conversation on Israel in Washington has changed. Democratic lawmakers are increasingly calling for a more nuanced approach to US-Israel relations. And critics are pushing Biden break from the tradition of unwavering support and call out Israel when it oversteps.

"That's what's missing in the statements coming from President Biden: You don't hear the words 'Palestinians deserve human rights, that Palestinians deserve to exist, that Palestinians deserve to live freely, that children need to be safe and secure,'" Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib said during an MSNBC interview on Monday.

"It's shocking, the hypocrisy of us saying that we need to be stewards of human rights, except for Palestinians," Tlaib went on to say. "I hope that my president, our president, speaks up and speaks truth about what exactly is happening, because I know they know."

Tlaib accused Biden of "taking orders" from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stating that the president's "passive language" is "enabling" Israel's government. She urged Biden to "speak out against this violence in a very aggressive way that holds Netanyahu and his leadership accountable."

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After an Israeli airstrike on Saturday leveled a Gaza building that housed offices for media outlets like Associated Press and Al Jazeera, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unloaded on Biden. The New York Democrat excoriated the Biden administration for delaying the push a ceasefire and blocking the UN Security Council from releasing a statement that would condemn Israel over the Gaza offensive.

"This is happening with the support of the United States. I don't care how any spokesperson tries to spin this. The US vetoed the UN call for ceasefire," Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet. "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?"

Louis Charbonneau, the UN representative for Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy that the Biden administration "undermines its credibility" by not holding Israel to "the same international standard as everyone else."

"U.S. credibility depends on an even-handed application of human rights rules and international law for everyone, allies and enemies alike," Charbonneau said.

Human rights groups are also raising concerns about Biden's uncritical approach, particularly due to the fact the US gives Israel roughly $3.8 billion in military aid per year.

"Hard for the Biden administration to claim a foreign policy grounded in human rights if it makes no effort to monitor how Israeli security forces are using US weapons and assistance," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet last week.

Gaza
Heavy smoke and fire surround Al-Sharouk tower as it collapses during an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City on May 12, 2021. Qusay Dawud/Getty Images

Democratic lawmakers and rights groups have also raised alarm about the Biden administration's plans to move forward with a $735 million sale of smart bombs (precision-guided weapons) to Israel.

"Biden's approval of a $735 million offensive arms sale to Israel in the midst of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law perpetrated by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups directly undermines his commitment to upholding human rights around the world," Philippe Nassif, the advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. "By supplying weapons that could be used to commit war crimes, the U.S. government is taking the risk of further fueling attacks against civilians and seeing more people killed or injured by U.S.-made weapons."

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in a statement on Monday said it would be "appalling" for Biden to move ahead with the sale. "We should be standing unequivocally and consistently on the side of human rights," Omar said.

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