Israeli-Palestinian fighting sparks bitter political battles

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Israel wants the world to unite behind its war against Iran-backed Hamas, which it escalated Friday morning, but the fighting has sparked division, including in Washington, where shouting matches on Capitol Hill, charges of antisemitism and bitter foreign policy fights have broken out as lawmakers draw their own battle lines.

The latest escalation occurred after Israel called up 9,000 reservists and amassed ground forces on its border with Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The Israeli military said Friday it had struck Gaza, using ground forces for the first time.

The spiraling conflict has created a fresh Mideast headache for the Biden administration, and warring U.S. political factions have seized on this week’s developments to boost their own arguments about what the White House should be doing to lead the region toward a solution — or at least an easing of the fighting.

Republican senators say Hamas’ indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets in Israel shows why the Biden administration must abandon its dangerous plan to give economic sanctions relief to Iran, the chief financial backer of the Gaza-based Palestinian militants and other terrorist outfits around the Middle East.

Leading Democrats such as Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, meanwhile, argue the Israeli military’s retaliatory Gaza strike this week proves Israel will resort to its own “acts of terrorism” against innocent Palestinians with little pushback from American officials. 

Ms. Omar and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez claim that many U.S. lawmakers support Israel at every turn without question.

Such accusations from the two progressive firebrands prompted outrage Thursday from former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who responded that the arguments being made by Ms. Omar and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez carried a “deep, deep flavor of antisemitism.”

Mr. Pompeo’s comments underscored how the violent clash occurring thousands of miles away has sparked fiery, personal attacks on America’s own political landscape.

It’s a dynamic that stands in stark contrast to the united front against Hamas that top Israeli officials say they are seeking. In an exclusive interview with The Washington Times’ Tim Constantine late Wednesday, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Gilad Erdan said nations must form an anti-Hamas alliance resembling the worldwide coalition that joined together years ago to battle the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh.

“Israel is under fire,” Mr. Erdan told “The Capitol Hill Show” produced by Mr. Constantine. “I remember when the international community had to face Daesh. It’s the same issue, basically.”

“It’s an extremist jihadist terror organization, this time talking about Hamas, committed to the annihilation of the state of Israel,” the ambassador said. “As we were all united in the goal to crush Daesh, that’s the same thing that should happen with Hamas. We expect the international community to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Fighting intensifies

Mr. Erdan’s plea has largely been ignored as fighting ramps up in Gaza and more rockets hit Israel.

Regional experts say it’s unlikely a major international anti-Hamas coalition will spring to life in the near future, largely because there are nuanced distinctions to be made between the Islamic State, a global terrorist outfit, and the Palestinian militant group focused primarily on targeting Israel.

In the Middle East, even the most repressive regimes — such as the government in Iran — have claimed to be fighting against ISIS, which did not spare fellow Muslims from acts of carnage as it established an extremist so-called “caliphate” across parts of Iraq and Syria. No government backed the Islamic State in the way U.S. officials say Tehran currently props up Hamas or Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which also differs from ISIS in that it acts as a powerful player in Lebanese politics.

Moderate governments across the Middle East, including those in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which set up formal diplomatic relations with Israel as part of former President Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords, have little affinity for Hamas. But the question of whether either of those nations seeks to be identified as partnering with Israel to stamp out the Palestinian militant group is a delicate one.

The issue of Iranian support for Palestinian militants, meanwhile, has long been condemned by Washington, but hasn’t stopped U.S. officials from trying to engage in diplomacy with Tehran.

The Biden administration for example, is presently trying to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran despite the Islamic republic’s support for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, a smaller militant group that works with Hamas.

Iran’s Middle East rival Saudi Arabia has also recently been holding back-channel discussions with Tehran to find ways to cool tensions and stop a long-running proxy war in Yemen.

It remains to be seen how the current fighting in Gaza could impact the future of Abraham Accords, the U.S.-Iran talks, and other issues.

For Israel, there are much more immediate concerns.

Hamas on Thursday launched another barrage of rockets into Israel in the most severe attacks since the two sides went to war in 2014.

A Palestine Islamic Jihad member claimed Iran provided the rockets.

“[The] weapons we use to pound Tel Aviv, our weapons, our money, and our food are provided by Iran,” said Ramez Al-Halabi, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington.

Israeli forces responded Thursday with more retaliatory strikes and Friday’s assault seemed to be the heaviest yet.

Red flames lit up the skies on the outskirts of Gaza City and even people inside the city, several kilometers away according to reporters on the ground, could be heard screaming in fear. The Israelis also fired tank and artillery shells across the border for the first time.

“I said we would extract a very heavy price from Hamas,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a videotaped statement. “We are doing that, and we will continue to do that with heavy force.”

Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting, according to media reports Thursday. At least seven Israelis have died, including a 6-year-old child killed by a Hamas rocket.

The Pentagon confirmed that 120 U.S. military personnel were evacuated from Israel Thursday to Germany because of the missile attacks.

Mr. Netanyahu showed no signs of backing down despite pressure from Egypt and other nations to strike a cease-fire.

“It will take more time, but … we will achieve our goal to restore peace to the state of Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Hamas remains equally defiant as it targets major Israeli population centers.

“The decision to bomb Tel Aviv, Dimona and Jerusalem is easier for us than drinking water,” a Hamas spokesman said in a video message Thursday.

Political battle

In Washington, President Biden has tried to de-escalate the situation while sticking by America’s longstanding support for Israel.

“One of the things that I have seen thus far is that there has not been a significant overreaction,” the president told reporters Thursday. “The question is how we get to a point where … there is a significant reduction in the attacks, particularly the rocket attacks that are indiscriminately fired into [Israeli] population centers.”

But Mr. Biden is taking heat from some in his own party.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, for example, criticized the president’s declaration that Israel has an unassailable right to defend itself from attack.

“Blanket statements like these w/ little context or acknowledgment of what precipitated this cycle of violence — namely, the expulsions of Palestinians and attacks on Al Aqsa — dehumanize Palestinians & imply the US will look the other way at human rights violations. It’s wrong,” the New York Democrat tweeted, referring to the iconic Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

Al-Aqsa, the third holiest site of Islam, has been a flash point in the current violence since Israeli police and Palestinian protesters faced off inside the walled compound that surrounds the mosque.

Ms. Omar, a Somali American and one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress, also has condemned Israel’s actions, referring to some Israeli military strikes in Gaza as an “act of terrorism” and arguing that too few lawmakers in the U.S. are willing to stand up for innocent Palestinians.

“Palestinian children deserve advocates for their humanity, safety and security. No exceptions,” the Minnesota Democrat tweeted this week.

Mr. Pompeo, who served as secretary of state under Mr. Trump, said such comments are deeply offensive. “So, for my years in Congress, it was largely the case that support of Israel was a bipartisan effort. And that has changed over these last six or eight years,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt in a Thursday interview.

“You have the hard-core folks on the far left, Ilhan Omar, AOC, all attacking Israel in ways that have the deep, deep flavor of antisemitism,” Mr. Pompeo said. “And then you have more mainstream Democrats, too, who simply refuse to support this important geostrategic partner for the United States.”

Outspoken conservatives on Capitol Hill also are firing back. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia Republican, reportedly ran after Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and shouted at her outside the Capitol on Wednesday. While the run-in wasn’t directly related the situation in Gaza, Ms. Taylor Greene made clear on Twitter her deep opposition to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s position and mocked the “Squad.”

“You are also a hate-America terrorist sympathizer. #JihadSquad,” she tweeted.

Other Republicans believe the crisis should spur the White House to rethink its Iran policy. More than 40 Republican senators wrote a letter to Mr. Biden late Wednesday urging the administration to stop negotiating with Iran over a new deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear program.

“While the United States and countries around the world condemned these rocket attacks, Iran resoundingly supports this aggression,” they wrote. “Shortly after the attacks began, and as they continued, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted that Palestinians should unite to ‘use the tools of their disposal’ to attack Israel, which he recently called not a nation, but a ‘terrorist garrison.’”

“We call on you to immediately end negotiations with Iran,” they said, “and make clear that sanctions relief will not be provided.”

• Tom Howell, Kery Murakami, Rowan Scarborough and Mike Glenn contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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