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Biden aides to meet with Arab, Muslim leaders in Michigan on Gaza

U.S. President Joe Biden hosts event at the White House in recognition of Black History Month, in Washington

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior U.S. officials will visit the 2024 election battleground state of Michigan on Thursday to meet with Arab-American and Muslim leaders critical of President Joe Biden for not calling for a permanent ceasefire in Israel's attacks on Gaza.

The officials include U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, Steve Benjamin, White House public engagement director; and his deputy, Jamie Citron, a White House official said.

Other officials include Tom Perez, who heads the White House office of intergovernmental affairs; his deputy, Dan Koh; Jon Finer, principal deputy national security adviser; and Mazen Basrawi, director for partnerships and global engagement at the National Security Council, the official said.

The meetings come weeks after community leaders in southeastern Michigan refused to meet with Biden campaign officials, saying they would only engage with policymakers on ending Israel's attacks on Gaza and getting aid to Palestinians.

On Tuesday, over 30 elected officials across Michigan said they would vote "uncommitted" in Michigan's Democratic primary on Feb. 27 to protest Biden's response to the war in Gaza, and others have said they will not vote for Biden in November.

Administration officials say the meetings are part of their ongoing engagement with community leaders and elected officials since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on southern Israel. They have said a broad ceasefire now would benefit Hamas but have called for more limited halts in fighting to allow for the release of hostages taken by Hamas and the distribution of aid to Gaza residents.

Ahmad Chebbani, founder and chairman of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, said community leaders remained skeptical. "They should have engaged with us months ago. I think this thing is irreversible. You can't really cover up 30,000 people dead," he said.

Israel began its military offensive after militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages on Oct. 7. Gaza's health ministry says at least 27,585 Palestinians have been confirmed killed, with thousands more feared buried under rubble. There has been only one truce so far, lasting just a week at the end of November.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Jonathan Oatis)