Skip to main content

Israel-Palestine war: How US Democrats are fuelling a brutal Israeli revenge on Gaza

Liberal US politicians' widespread and context-free use of the word 'unprovoked' to describe the attacks from Gaza will only embolden Israel to deploy excessive force against Palestinians
People hold up signs and flags to show their support for Palestinians at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee on 10 October, 2023 (Reuters)
People hold up signs and flags to show their support for Palestinians at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee on 10 October 2023 (Reuters)

The large-scale and surprise attacks on Israel by Palestinian fighters from Gaza on Saturday prompted swift reactions in Washington.

Those responses were virtually uniform in condemning the attacks, which left hundreds of Israelis dead. Yet they were frequently - and incorrectly - labelled “unprovoked”, while affirming Israel’s “right to self-defence”. It was a unified sentiment that spanned the political spectrum.

“Today’s terrorist violence against Israel is a reminder of the evil that motivates Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and their patrons in Tehran,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.

Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader, said in his own statement: “I am appalled at the viciousness of the attack on innocent Israeli civilians.” 

For many, the theme that this was an attack motivated by “evil” or viciousness and devoid of any context was prominent.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said he was “shocked by the barbaric images we are seeing of Hamas’ violence and by reports Hamas is taking innocent Israeli citizens hostage”.

Meanwhile, Democratic representative Jared Moskowitz, asked where innocent Palestinians in Gaza should go when Israel attacks, before callously responding: “That’s something Hamas should have thought of.”  

No call for restraint

Rare indeed was any congressional leader expressing concern over the innocent Palestinian lives that were about to be lost in Israel’s response to the Palestinian fighters’ attack.

Democrat Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian woman serving in Congress, said, “I grieve the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost yesterday, today, and every day,” while identifying the ongoing occupation and apartheid as the root cause of the death and destruction. 

Follow our live blog for all the latest on the Israel-Palestine war

Similarly, Democrat Cori Bush said: "I strongly condemn the targeting of civilians and I urge an immediate ceasefire and de-escalation to prevent further loss of life.” Calling for a just peace for everyone in the region, Bush noted that “violations of human rights do not justify more violations of human rights, and a military response will only exacerbate the suffering of Palestinians and Israelis alike".

The West's hypocrisy towards Gaza's breakout is stomach-turning
Read More »

Both women were roundly condemned, most notably by members of their own party, for these statements showing concern for Palestinian lives.

Beyond the declarations of support from members of Congress, President Joe Biden took the first of what is likely to be many steps to support Israel in its declared intention to decimate Gaza. There was no call for restraint or to protect civilian lives, not even when Israel announced that it would cut off all food, water, electricity and fuel to the Gaza Strip, a clear act of collective punishment that is certain to lead to many civilian deaths. 

Instead, the president immediately threatened any country that might consider helping the Palestinians, saying: “This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage. The world is watching.”

The implication was clear, and yet if it was not enough, the US announced it was moving an aircraft carrier as well as a guided missile cruiser and four guided missile destroyers into the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to support Israel. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin also announced that supplies of munitions would be sent to Israel as well, clearly anticipating so large an Israeli operation that it needed even more munitions than it already had. 

The administration is somewhat limited in what it can do because the ability to secure any additional funding for Israel is in question due to the absence of a speaker of the House of Representatives, an unprecedented situation that puts all US government funding into unknown territory. Congress must approve all government expenditures, and without a speaker, it is unclear whether the House of Representatives can enact new legislation, which this would require. 

Biden, however, does have the full authority over the use of the US military, short of declaring war. And he has made it clear he will do all he can to support Israel’s actions. 

Widespread liberal support

There would seem to be little hope of any restraint on Israel from Washington, given the views expressed even by many of the more liberal members of the Democratic Party. 

Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries spoke for most of his party in his statement. “I strongly condemn the violent and ghastly attack by the terrorist organisation Hamas on the Jewish people and the State of Israel," it read.

"The loss of life in Israel as a result of the violent, calculated and unprovoked attack by Hamas is heartbreaking… Congress must stand with Israel until the invasion by Hamas has been crushed and security in southern Israel and throughout the country has been permanently restored.”

Calling it (Palestinian fighters' assault) 'unprovoked' completely removes it from the context of the long-term dispossession of the Palestinian people

That statement is a virtual free pass for massive Israeli action. But note Jeffries’ description of the attack as “unprovoked”. This has been a common talking point, and it is a crucial one.

That the attack by Palestinian fighters was illegal because of the widespread and intentional targeting of civilians, and that it was shocking is undeniable.

But calling it “unprovoked” completely removes it from the context of the long-term dispossession of the Palestinian people and the 16-year siege of Gaza. It erases the conditions of apartheid, which have been growing considerably worse under the current, extremist Israeli government.

And, even in the short term, it ignores Israel’s escalations in Jenin and other Palestinian towns; the increasing impunity it has granted to Jewish settlers as they launched violent attacks on Palestinians; and the most recent incidents of Israel allowing settlers to assert their presence at Al-Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem. 

None of that justifies the assaults on civilians this weekend. Attacks on military and security targets, which have gotten much less coverage but were a significant part of the Palestinian fighters' action, are, indeed, legitimate parts of the right to resist a belligerent military occupation.

But, while calling it “unprovoked” also does not change the legality of any subsequent Israeli actions, it does change the public perception of the actions of both the Palestinian fighters and Israel. It increases public outrage and inevitably increases tolerance for excessive force. 


Jeffries’ position as a Democratic leader casts a light on the statements of other Democrats, even if they do not use the term “unprovoked”. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, recognised as one of the voices in Congress most critical of Israel, said on X: “I absolutely condemn the horrifying attack on Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. There is no justification for this violence, and innocent people on both sides will suffer hugely because of it.” 

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted a very similar statement. Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar, one of the few Muslims in Congress and a prominent critic of Israel, condemned “the horrific acts we are seeing unfold today in Israel against children, women, the elderly and the unarmed people who are being slaughtered and taken hostage by Hamas… We need to call for de-escalation and a ceasefire.”

US Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, speaks during a press conference with family members of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. 18 May 2023. AFP
US Representative Ilhan Omar speaks during a press conference in Washington, DC with family members of slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, on 18 May 2023 (AFP)

Other prominent Democratic members of Congress, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Ayanna Pressley, made similar statements condemning the action.

Yet while they also called for renewed efforts at resolving the ongoing crisis or for a ceasefire, even their statements did not specifically call for Israel to restrain itself and avoid harming Palestinian civilians in Gaza. 

The overarching statements of the more prominent Democrats such as Jeffries, Schumer and others mean that even the more moderate calls for a ceasefire will not only be blunted, but will fuel the perception that Palestinian fighters’ action happened in a vacuum and was “unprovoked”, thus increasing support for what is shaping up to be an unprecedentedly brutal action in Gaza by Israel. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Mitchell Plitnick, a political analyst and writer, is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy. He is the author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics. Mitchell’s previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and Co-Director of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.