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Biden Defends West Bank Civilians, His Most Sympathetic Remarks to Palestinians Since War in Gaza

Local residents inspect an impact crater at the site of an Israeli drone strike that killed three Palestinians, on the day of their funeral at Jenin refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank Oct. 25, 2023.
Local residents inspect an impact crater at the site of an Israeli drone strike that killed three Palestinians, on the day of their funeral at Jenin refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank Oct. 25, 2023.

In an apparent shift of rhetoric, President Joe Biden on Wednesday delivered his most pointed expression yet of concern for Palestinian civilians affected by the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Biden said he continues to be alarmed about attacks by what he called extremist settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, likening the assaults to “pouring gasoline on fire.”

He made the remarks at the beginning of his joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who was at the White House for a state visit.

“This was a deal. The deal was made, and they're attacking Palestinians in places that they're entitled to be,” Biden said, referring to the 1993 Oslo Accords. “It has to stop,” he implored. “They have to be held accountable. It has to stop now.”

According to the health ministry run by the Palestinian Authority, more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank in retaliatory attacks by Israeli settlers and in military raids since Hamas launched its incursion on Israeli soil on Oct. 7, an attack in which Israeli authorities said at least 1,400 people were massacred and 200 were taken hostage.

Biden did not mention the Israeli military’s role in the West Bank violence. Following Hamas’ attacks, Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right settler with a history of anti-Arab incitement, distributed weapons to settlers, many of whom were already heavily armed.

Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, cited Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank among its motives for attacking Israeli civilians and soldiers.

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Israeli retaliatory airstrikes since October 7 have killed more than 5,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health, and have displaced more than a million people who have followed Israeli evacuation orders.

Biden expressed skepticism on the death toll, doubting that “Palestinians are telling the truth.”

A senior administration official clarified to VOA the president is skeptical of Hamas-supplied figures given the limited ability of outside parties to verify them and because of the ministry’s “history of inflating death tolls.”

Robert McCaw, who leads the Government Affairs Department at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, questioned Biden’s skepticism.

“Would it make the president feel better if only 1,000 children were dead?” he said to VOA.

Still, Biden’s remarks were his most extensive and sympathetic toward Palestinians since the war broke out. He outlined a postwar vision in which Hamas – the organization that Washington designated in 1997 as a foreign terrorist group – is dismantled and the region is on a path toward a two-state solution.

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He underscored the need for Israel’s Arab neighbors to come to diplomatic terms with Israel without brushing aside the Palestinian cause, and he suggested that progress toward “regional integration for Israel” was a motive for Hamas’ attack.

Shift in tone

Wednesday’s remarks marked a shift in tone for Biden. Days after the militants’ attack, in a forceful and emotional speech denouncing Hamas as “pure, unadulterated evil,” Biden made no mention of Palestinian casualties despite hundreds already killed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

Fresh off his brief wartime visit to Tel Aviv, in an Oct. 20 speech requesting funding to support Israel and Ukraine, Biden said he was “heartbroken by the tragic loss of Palestinian life.”

In the same sentence, he backed Israel’s account that it was not responsible for the deadly hospital explosion in Gaza. U.S. officials say they have concluded Israel is not to blame for the explosion at the hospital.

As Israeli retaliatory airstrikes continue, with heavy tolls on civilians in Gaza and the threat of a wider war in the Middle East, some see a shift in Biden’s handling of the crisis.

The president’s rhetoric at the beginning of the conflict was “so decidedly one-sided” that the administration didn't provide themselves with “a way out when they wanted to pivot,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

“Is it a decisive enough shift to represent balance? Not yet,” Zogby told VOA. “The Israelis certainly still have a green light.”

As casualties grow, Biden is under increasing pressure from groups denouncing his “unwavering” support of Israel.

American Muslims have been “disturbed, shocked, disappointed, and distraught” by Biden’s policies, said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

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Al-Marayati noted that while Biden’s words have become more sympathetic, they are betrayed by his administration’s actions.

“They’re ready for a full-scale invasion of the Middle East, not just Gaza,” he told VOA. “God knows where this will take us.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Biden said he did not ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay the ground invasion that Israel is planning, to allow extraction of hostages including Americans out of Gaza.

“What I have indicated to him is that if that's possible to get these folks out safely, that's what he should do,” he said. “It’s their decision, but I did not demand it.”

Americans side with Israel

Several polls taken after the Hamas attack show most Americans side with Israel in the conflict. The numbers reverse a long-term trend where Americans’ sympathies toward Palestinians have gradually increased over the past several years, although still less than toward Israelis. A 2013 Gallup poll indicated that 64% of Americans sympathized with Israelis and 12% with Palestinians. Earlier this year, the gap narrowed to 54% to 31%.

Even with domestic pressure from Arab and Muslim Americans as well as Progressive Democrats, a year away from U.S. presidential elections, the bigger factor in Biden’s calculation is international condemnation, said Zogby.

Massive anti-Israeli and anti-American demonstrations have created tensions in the Arab world, risking greater instability and prospects of regional escalation that Washington and its allies are keen to avoid.

Washington is also keen to keep good relations with Global South countries, many of which side with the Palestinian cause, as the U.S. competes for world influence with China and Russia, said Richard Gowan, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group.

One way to let off a little steam in the crisis is to ensure humanitarian aid gets into Gaza, Gowan told VOA.

“I think the U.S. wants to show that – both in the region and at the U.N. – it is trying to get assistance to the Palestinians, with the hopes that that will lower the rising temperature in the region.”

That hope was dashed Wednesday at the U.N. when Russia and China vetoed a U.S.- sponsored Security Council resolution that called for a humanitarian pause in fighting, the protection of civilians and a stop to arming Hamas and other militants in the Gaza Strip. Days earlier the U.S. vetoed a draft from Brazil that would allow humanitarian aid but did not include Israel’s right to defend itself.

Misha Komadovsky contributed to this report.