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War on Gaza: Internal anger with Biden and Congress reaches boiling point

After 100 days of war, scores of staffers on Capitol Hill and in the Biden administration are demoralised and uncomfortable working for the US president
White-shrouded body bags, representing victims in the war in Gaza, are seen during a vigil in front of the White House in Washington on 15 November 2023.
White-shrouded body bags, representing victims in the war in Gaza, are seen during a vigil in front of the White House in Washington on 15 November 2023 (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

After three months of Israel's war on Gaza, and after months of widespread mass protests against the war and calls for US President Joe Biden to support a ceasefire, Washington ordered air strikes on Yemen, an escalatory move that could push the region into a wider war.

The decision by Biden has exponentially increased the level of anger from lawmakers and progressives who have been working since October to push for a ceasefire in Gaza.

But anger and dissent aren't limited to the progressive camp. Middle East Eye spoke to congressional staffers from several offices across both chambers, as well as several staffers working in the Biden administration who say that frustration towards Biden and Congress has reached a boiling point.

"The level of anger at Joe Biden is now comparable to the level of anger at Donald Trump," one progressive Capitol Hill staffer told Middle East Eye on the night the US conducted the first strikes on Yemen.

"The idea that he would do that and then ask us to vote for him is ludicrous," the staffer said. "I don't know what planet they are operating on, but this is not how you win in November."

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'Mass resignations would be powerful'

The war in Gaza began on 7 October when the armed Palestinian group Hamas launched an attack from Gaza on southern Israel. The attack killed 695 Israeli civilians, 373 security forces and 71 foreigners, a total of 1,139 people according to the Israeli government.

Israel responded to the attacks with widespread and unrelenting force, launching a full siege on Gaza and an "indiscriminate" aerial bombing campaign, followed by a ground invasion by Israeli troops and tanks.

Israel's military campaign has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, and has targeted civilian infrastructure including mosques, hospitals, schools and UN shelters.

'There's nothing really tying us to want to stay here and also make us feel even more complicit'

- White House staffer

Since 7 October, one White House staff member told Middle East Eye that she has had a letter of resignation typed up and ready to send. Each day, she takes a look at it, wondering whether it will be the day she decides to leave.

"The only reason a lot of us had for staying is, if we're not here, who will be at least advocating. I think that's what's held a few of us back, but that one specific cause is slowly -  it's fading away. There's not much else left," the staffer told MEE.

"There's nothing really tying us to want to stay here and also make us feel even more complicit."

The staffer's experience and feelings resemble many others across the administration who decided to join the Biden administration to work on a number of domestic policy issues such as education or the environment. But now, each day the war continues, they see working there as risking complicity in Biden's fervent support for the war, even as Israel has been brought to The Hague to defend itself against accusations of genocide.

"Staffers feel demoralised, and they feel disconnected, kind of appalled and very uncomfortable working for this president," another White House staffer said.

"It's very difficult to continue to work here."

Follow Middle East Eye's live coverage of the Israel-Palestine war

Members of at least every agency in the Biden administration have expressed support for a ceasefire, according to several White House staff members who spoke to MEE.

So far, two people from the administration have tendered their resignations - Josh Paul, who oversaw arms transfers at State, and Tariq Habash, who worked on education policy at the White House.

The morale of staff in the White House is so low that the chief of staff planned a party in the hopes of cheering up the employees, according to a report from Axios.

However, it's not clear if the senior staff members of the administration understand why morale is so low. After the report of the party for White House staff, another report stated that hundreds of federal employees across 22 government agencies are planning a walk-out to protest against Biden's handling of the war.

"Mass resignations would be powerful, but I don't know if we are there yet," the first White House staffer said.

'I don't know if I want to return to the Hill'

A few blocks away in Congress, staffers tell Middle East Eye that the situation is similarly bleak, and it's not just a matter of dissent brewing within Washington. All across the US, the number of Americans who are against their country's support for the war has grown.

"We have people crying or sobbing, begging us to do something, telling us that we're complicit in what's happening, that we have blood on our hands, desperate for some direction or actions on what to do as Americans to help stop the violence that they see unfolding," said one congressional staffer.

More than 140 staffers wrote a letter in mid-December stating that, across 71 offices, they have received more than 700,000 calls urging their elected officials to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The actual number of calls for a ceasefire coming into congressional offices is likely in the millions, according to several congressional staff members who spoke to MEE.

But members of Congress wouldn't know this, since the congressional staff who spoke to MEE said that senior staff members often lower these numbers or simply don't present them to their representatives.

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The suppression was a bitter reality that left many staffers demoralised. They didn't come to the Hill naive about how Congress operates. But similar to the experience of many Biden staffers, they never expected such a severe loss of life to be met with silence.

"I grew up as someone who always wanted to do politics, and so I would always hear that you should stand up for what you believe. So now that we're doing that, the fact that we have to be concerned about losing our jobs, I can be sued, all these threats. It just makes life really awkward in the office," said the second congressional staffer who spoke to MEE.

"I don't even know if I want to return to the Hill. It's just a very weird feeling."

Beyond questioning their own jobs, some individuals working in Congress have gone as far as saying elected officials refusing to speak on the subject should not even have the job of being a member of the US Congress.

"If you're hiding behind a podium, saying it's tough, there's a long history, [Israel] needs to do what they need to do, that is just a sign that you're unwilling to do your job as a member of Congress. You do not deserve the title or the responsibility that comes with it," said the third congressional staffer who spoke to MEE.

"That's where a lot of staff feel right now," the staffer said.

Public support for Gaza ceasefire

The insight into the mood in Washington from staffers is matched by nationwide polls, which show the position of the US president and the majority of elected officials is at odds with much of the American public.

A poll released by Reuters/Ipsos in November, just one month into the conflict, found that a majority of Americans were in favour of Israel calling for a ceasefire. Only a third of the respondents were in support of the war.

'I don't think a lot of these members understand exactly how unpopular and untenable their positions are'

- Capitol Hill staffer

Other polls offered greater condemnation of US support for Israel's war. A New York Times poll released in mid-December found that half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 believe Israel is deliberately killing civilians, while 70 percent disapprove of Biden's handling of the war.

A poll released this past Friday by the Arab American Institute found that a majority of Americans, 51 percent, are more inclined to vote for a political candidate who supports calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

To the congressional staffers who spoke to MEE, the findings of these polls are what they themselves have been witnessing during their interactions with constituents. The fact that their offices have still yet to call for an end to the war does not bode well for them come election time.

"All of the people who are engaging with constituents are largely supporting a ceasefire, are largely coming out to our protests, and are largely calling for better from our bosses," one staffer said.

"I don't think a lot of these members understand exactly how unpopular and untenable their positions are."

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