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The Memo: Looming Rafah catastrophe sparks new progressive rage at Biden

The dire situation in the Palestinian city of Rafah is the latest challenge to face President Biden as he seeks to navigate the conflict in the Middle East.

Progressive activists say he is failing miserably.

“We’re tired of hearing that Biden has criticized [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu behind closed doors, or used strong words on a phone call, while simultaneously urging Congress to approve over $14 billion to the Israeli military,” Beth Miller, political director of Jewish Voice for Peace Action, told this column.

Rafah, a city on the border with Egypt, is now home to more than half the population of the entire territory of Gaza. An estimated 1.4 million people are sheltering there.

Many are refugees from other parts of the Gaza Strip. The Washington Post reported Monday that “families are packed into houses and tents” in the city, while “newer arrivals are sleeping in the streets.”

Soon after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people, Israel began a reprisal campaign. As part of its purported aim to uproot Hamas, it warned Gazans in the north of the strip to move south.

Having done so, they are now penned into Rafah as Israel escalates its attacks. Early Monday, Israel reportedly killed around 67 Palestinians, including women and children, in strikes amid a raid that also freed two Israeli hostages.

Palestinians sit by the destruction from the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024.
Palestinians sit by the destruction from the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Israel has killed more than 28,000 people in total, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas. The death toll is estimated to include more than 20,000 women and children.

Concern about the situation in Gaza extends internationally and it is not confined to the political left.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, a conservative, said Monday that Israel should “stop and think seriously” before proceeding with further actions in Rafah, The Guardian newspaper reported.

Cameron noted that many of the people in Rafah have already been displaced multiple times.

“It really, we think, is impossible to see how you can fight a war among these people. There is nowhere for them to go,” he added.

But so far Netanyahu has shown no inclination to back off, arguing instead that Israel’s actions are necessary if Hamas is to be defeated.

He characterized Rafah as the militant group’s “last bastion” during an interview with ABC News’s “This Week” on Sunday.

The Biden administration says it has emphasized to the Israelis the importance of minimizing civilian casualties.

At Monday’s White House press briefing, national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Biden is “confident that our Israeli counterparts understand our concerns. We’ve made them privately, we’ve made them publicly. … They’ve heard loud and clear our concerns that the civilians need to be protected.”

Biden himself last week called Israel’s overall response to the Oct. 7 attack “over the top.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said that he told Netanyahu that the rate of the killing of civilians was unacceptably high.

On Monday, an NBC News report underlined the apparent extent of White House exasperation with Netanyahu. The report contended Biden had told donors and others in private conversations that Netanyahu is troublesome and impossible to deal with.

The report further stated Biden had described Netanyahu as an “asshole” on at least three recent occasions.

Speaking at the White House on Monday alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan, Biden said the people in Rafah were “exposed and vulnerable” and “need to be protected.” He said the “major military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible plan for ensuring the safety and support of more than one million people sheltering there.”

But at this stage, words cut little ice with progressive activists who are outraged by Biden’s broad public support for Israel generally — and by his push for $14 billion in new military aid, without conditions.

Kirby, asked Monday whether any action by Israel would force a change in U.S. policy, simply reiterated U.S. support for Israel and actions that it considers necessary in its defense.

Eva Borgwardt, the national spokesperson for IfNotNow, an American Jewish group sharply critical of Israeli policies regarding Palestinians, said it was “maddening to hear the president privately expressing frustration with the Netanyahu government while doing everything in his power to drive $14 billion for additional weapons through Congress.”


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Borgwardt also predicted there would be serious political consequences for the president’s handling of the conflict.

“The majority of Democratic voters want a cease-fire, and Biden continues to ignore the fact that his base is watching the devastation in Gaza with horror,” she said. “I’m terrified of Trump and furious with Biden for this catastrophic negligence.”

Polling shows that, while Democrats are roughly evenly split on whether they sympathize more with Israel or the Palestinians, they are increasingly convinced that the Israeli response to Oct. 7 has been disproportionate.

An Associated Press/NORC poll released earlier this month found 63 percent of Democrats now think Israel’s military response has “gone too far.” Only 24 percent characterized it as “about right,” and just 9 percent say it has “not gone far enough.”

Meanwhile, an Economist/YouGov poll in late January found 49 percent of Democrats believe Israel is engaging in genocide against Palestinian civilians. Only 21 percent of Democrats asserted the opposite, while 30 percent said they were not sure.

On top of all that, the conflict has particular political salience in Michigan, one of roughly a half-dozen battleground states that will determine the outcome of November’s election. Michigan has a sizable Arab American population, and Biden is faring poorly there.

He is almost 4 points down in the state against former President Trump, according to the polling average maintained by The Hill and Decision Desk HQ.

Biden’s support for Israel is sincere, and his supporters can fairly assert the conflict has put him in a tough spot.

But the grim near-certainty of more bloodshed in Rafah will come with a steep political price.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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