Israel-Hamas conflict divides Minnesota Democrats

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WASHINGTON — Surging violence and death as Israel carries out airstrikes against Hamas in Gaza City is highlighting a split between Democrats in Minnesota's congressional delegation over thorny questions inflamed by the conflict.

Two Minnesota Democrats, U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum and Ilhan Omar, have been prominent congressional defenders of Palestinian human rights, and both urged the Biden administration Monday to take a harder line against Israel's government.

"Dozens of innocent Palestinian children, women, and families have been killed," McCollum wrote on Twitter Monday. "Civilian casualties are not acceptable. The Biden administration must be stronger in calling for an immediate end to this violence."

In April, McCollum, who leads the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, introduced legislation to forbid U.S. funding of Israeli activities that, critics say, qualify as violations of the human rights of Palestinians.

With Republicans including those in Minnesota's delegation publicly supportive of Israel, other Minnesota Democrats are treading more cautiously in response to the overseas crisis, which is emerging as a major international test for President Joe Biden's new administration.

"President Biden must condemn the anti-Israel sentiment that is growing within the Democrat party and send the clear message that America stands with our longtime ally, Israel," Republican Rep. Pete Stauber said in a statement.

In a floor speech last week, Omar, a cosponsor of McCollum's proposal, blamed forced evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Israeli military action at a mosque during the Islam holy month of Ramadan for the violence.

"We have a responsibility to come to terms with what our tax dollars are funding: evictions of Palestinian families, detention of Palestinian children at military centers, and human rights abuses," Omar said in a Monday statement. Omar also criticized Hamas, pointing to the deaths of at least 10 Israelis, including two children. "To be clear, this is also a war crime," she said.

In her own floor speech last Thursday, McCollum condemned Hamas's actions, along with what she called "Israelis' occupation of Palestine."

Other Democrats in the Minnesota delegation avoided placing blame on either side in the conflict. On Sunday, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith joined a group of Senate Democrats in a letter that called for an end to the violence.

"I fiercely support Israel's right to exist and protect itself from sworn enemies AND Palestinians' desire for self-determination and opportunity," Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips said in his own statement. "I'm heartbroken by the loss of life in Israel & Gaza — particularly precious children."

Last week, Phillips was also among a group of Jewish lawmakers in the House who signed a letter to Biden affirming Israel's right to defend itself while expressing concern for "unjust evictions of Palestinian families" and Israeli "police violence" in East Jerusalem that preceded the Palestinian rocket attacks.

In April, more than 300 House members co-signed a bipartisan letter to leaders of the House Appropriations Committee that warned "reducing funding or adding conditions on security assistance would be detrimental to Israel's ability to defend itself against all threats." All four GOP members of the Minnesota delegation signed on to the letter, along with Phillips and Craig. Omar and McCollum did not sign.

In February 2019, Omar faced pushback from within her own party over activity on Twitter, with House Democratic leaders saying in a statement "Omar's use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel's supporters is deeply offensive." Omar apologized.

In tweets last week, Republican Reps. Tom Emmer, Jim Hagedorn and Michelle Fischbach joined Stauber in emphasizing support for Israel and condemned the attacks from Hamas.

"The State of Israel has every right to defend itself against attacks by the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hamas," Emmer said in a statement Monday. "Elected officials must avoid spreading dangerous rhetoric and instead stand with our greatest ally in the Middle East against direct threats to their democracy."

Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559

Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432