Democrats on Capitol Hill are furious over Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s refusal to retract or add new context to her statements blaming Israel for the deadly blast that devastated a Gaza hospital, killing hundreds of people and setting off a regional backlash against the US and Israel.
Tlaib’s initial social media posts reflected the early Hamas-sourced reports out of Gaza. But those reports are now at odds with initial American intelligence, which subsequently concluded that the Israel Defense Forces were not responsible for the explosion.
The dispute has laid bare long-standing and increasingly passionate disagreements among congressional Democrats over the party’s relationship with Israel – and, now, how to position the party as the deadly conflict in Israel and Gaza escalates.
Mainstream Democrats, led by President Joe Biden, continue to insist on staunch support for Israel, while some progressive House members are becoming more insistent that the US aggressively push for a ceasefire and hold Israel accountable for alleged war crimes against Palestinians. And within the progressive bloc too, high-profile members such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have occasionally diverged, at least rhetorically, from their ideological allies and have spoken in more cautious, conciliatory tones. The political director for Rep. Ro Khanna, another influential progressive, resigned because the California Democrat did not sign a resolution calling for a ceasefire.
Tlaib, a Palestinian American and a longtime advocate for Palestinian rights, has been the most outspoken critic of Israel in Congress since her election in 2018. Her insistence on blaming Israel for the blast, which the US believes was struck by an errant rocket launched by extremist group Islamic Jihad, has roiled colleagues determined to present a united front at a harrowing time.
“That’s a vile position to take,” Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz told CNN, suggesting that Tlaib should review intelligence made available to House members. “She should at least pull those tweets down, instead of remaining entrenched in a position that is dangerous and unacceptable.”
Democrats have mostly been measured in their public comments about Tlaib, expressing frustration with her unyielding position in light of the conflicting reports and new evidence that Israel was not responsible for the hospital blast while also blaming the media over its coverage of the tragedy.
“When Israel makes statements, they have to show satellite imagery and all sorts of video. But when Hamas says something, the entire media world ran with it.” Florida Rep. Jared Moskowitz said. “It caused riots in all sorts of countries. It caused meetings to be canceled for the president. And so everyone has to be careful before they just react, and wait for things to be confirmed.”
But the effort to project unity could soon become untenable – and the divisions are becoming more personal.
According to a source with knowledge of the complaints, some Jewish Democrats have privately complained to Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’ team about comments from Tlaib and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, who initially echoed reports blaming Israel for the hospital attack before posting additional context about the hospital explosion and acknowledging the US intelligence assessment. (Jeffries has embraced the US and Israeli intelligence conclusions and a spokesperson said in a statement that Jeffries, like Biden, backs Israel’s “unequivocal right to defend itself against Hamas under the established rules of war and strongly disagrees with any effort to blame President Joe Biden or the policies of his administration.”)
Tlaib’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the matter, but the Michigan Democrat appeared at a Wednesday rally on Capitol Hill and continued to blame Israel.
“That’s what’s been really painful – just continue to watch people think it’s OK to bomb a hospital, where children,” Tlaib said. “What’s so hard sometimes is watching those videos and the people telling the kids, ‘Don’t cry.’ But like, let them cry. And they’re shaking, and somebody – you know this – they keep telling them not to cry in Arabic. They can cry, I can cry, we all can cry. If we’re not crying, something is wrong.”
“People are furious,” one House Democrat told CNN about the reaction to Tlaib’s comments. “The intelligence that we’ve received is clear. Do you believe Hamas’ intel or do you believe the United States’ intelligence?”
There’s now a push among some House Democrats to convince Tlaib to get an intelligence briefing on the hospital strike, according to the source.
Another House Democrat felt that Tlaib’s comments were frustrating but not entirely unexpected and that her colleagues are taking different approaches to addressing them. Some have been speaking out publicly while others are giving Tlaib space to walk back her comments.
Some Democrats pointed to a social media post by Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman as summing up the way a lot of them are feeling right now.
“It’s truly disturbing that Members of Congress rushed to blame Israel for the hospital tragedy in Gaza,” Fetterman wrote. ” Who would take the word of a group that just massacred innocent Israeli citizens over our key ally?”
Another Democratic aide, though, argued that the pushback against Tlaib and Omar undermined the Democratic Party’s brand.
“Part of being a ‘diversity party’ and a ‘big tent party’ includes bringing new voices who have been marginalized into the party,” the aide said. “And Muslim Americans have been some of the most marginalized people in American life for the past two decades.”
“No one in Congress is denying the horror of Hamas or the horror of the thousands of Israelis killed and the largest attack on Jews since the Holocaust,” the aide said, adding that the frustration among Muslim Americans – and some Jewish Americans – lies in “one side with very little political power receiving all of the outrage.”
Former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, downplayed the discord in the caucus.
“Name me more than four people,” Hoyer told CNN, in an apparent reference to the original “squad” of Tlaib, Omar, Ocasio Cortez and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley. “Do we have some people that have a different view? We do. But it’s not the position of the party.”
But the ranks of the dissenters have grown since then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi first offered a similarly dismissive assessment of the squad members in 2019. Progressives now make up a growing share of the House Democratic Caucus. More than a dozen Democratic members have so far publicly called for a ceasefire, including those who signed a proposed resolution by Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, a newer squad member.
“I am grieving for every Palestinian, Israeli, and American life lost to this violence, and my heart breaks for all those who will be forever traumatized because of it,” Bush said in an accompanying statement. “War and retaliatory violence doesn’t achieve accountability or justice; it only leads to more death and human suffering.”