WASHINGTON — Over the course of this week's military flare-up between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the leading Democratic presidential candidates took to social media to react, showcasing the different approaches within the party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The fighting began early Tuesday morning when Israel assassinated a senior Islamic Jihad commander, who had been responsible for multiple rocket attacks on Israeli towns and cities over the past year. In response, Islamic Jihad fired hundreds of rockets into Israel and Israeli forces bombed dozens of targets associated with the organization in Gaza. Overall, at least 32 Palestinians were killed, with Israel identifying the majority of them as Islamic Jihad militants.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently leading in most polls, offered strong support of Israel in light of the Gaza rockets and subsequent Israeli strikes. “Israel has a right to defend itself against terrorist threats,” Biden wrote on his Twitter account on Tuesday. “It is intolerable that Israeli civilians live their lives under the constant fear of rocket attacks.”
Biden also took pride in the fact that the Obama administration, of which he was part, gave significant funding to the Iron Dome missile defense system, which intercepted dozens of rockets that were shot from Gaza over the week. Biden wrote: “That's why our administration was such a strong supporter of Israel's life-saving Iron Dome.”
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has recently seen a rise in some polls, also threw his support behind Israel. “I strongly condemn the rocket attacks on the citizens of southern and central Israel,” he stated. “Israel has a right to defend itself against acts of terror that set back any progress towards peace and will only serve to inflame the humanitarian situation in Gaza.”
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, a centrist candidate who was the only one to mention Israel during the last televised Democratic debate, offered a similar message. “Rocket attacks on Israel continue,” she said on Tuesday. “My thoughts are with those living in fear and terror because of these attacks. The United States must continue to support Israel’s security.”
Klobuchar and Biden said earlier this month that they opposed calls to restrict or condition military aid to Israel. The idea has been promoted by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, while other candidates such as Senator Elizabeth Warren have expressed openness to it. Biden called the idea “outrageous” and Klobuchar said that security aid to Israel needs to continue in light of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria.
Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado also said that “rocket attacks against innocent civilians are unacceptable. Israel has the right to self-defense against attacks by terror groups inside Gaza.” Bennet added that “De-escalation is the only path forward to peace and stability.” Similar positions were expressed by Senators Kamala Harris (CA) and Cory Booker (NJ), as well as by Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
Booker emphasized the importance of providing aid to Israel: “Our security aid to Israel ensured the damage wasn’t worse — that support must continue," he said. "But with each senseless act of violence, more innocent lives are lost. As a new cease-fire takes hold, I urge restraint and calm in the area.”
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle also condemned the attacks and urged both sides to put an end to the round of violence. Rep. Max Rose (D-NY), a freshman Jewish-American lawmaker, said, “Islamic Jihad fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza into Israel indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians, trying to kill them in their homes and schools. I condemn the cowardly actions of these terrorists and pray for de-escalation so that Israelis and Gazans can live in peace.”
Rep. Mikie Sherrill, another Democrat elected to Congress in the 2018 “blue wave” by flipping a Republican-held seat, offered a similar message. The New Jersey representative, who had previously returned from a visit to Israel with a congressional delegation, said: “These attacks on innocent civilians must be condemned in the strongest terms.”
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All of the candidates who spoke out on the subject condemned the indiscriminate rocket fire targeting Israeli civilian areas, but the statements made by Senators Sanders and Warren show the growing gap within the party on how to address Israel and the Palestinians.
Both released statements about the situation in Gaza on Thursday afternoon, after a cease-fire had been declared. Sanders wrote on Twitter: “Israelis should not have to live in fear of rocket fire. Palestinians should not have to live under occupation and blockade. The U.S. must lead the effort to end the crisis in Gaza and the persistent violence that threatens everyone.”
Warren wrote that she “welcomed” the cease-fire and added, “Dozens were killed in Gaza, and hundreds of rockets fired at Israel. We must work to end rocket attacks on Israel, eliminate the Gaza blockade, and solve the humanitarian crisis so that all Israelis and Palestinians live in security and freedom.”
The two senators' remarks differed from those of other candidates by referencing not only Israel but the Palestinian people, and calling for concrete change on the ground. Sanders has consistently called on Israel in recent years to change its policy toward Gaza, and at the annual J-Street conference earlier this month floated the idea that some of the U.S. aid given to Israel should be invested in improving the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The Trump administration also reacted to the events, expressing support for Israel’s actions. Vice President Mike Pence stated: “The United States condemns the barrage of rockets on Israeli civilians. It's clear Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad put violence ahead of bettering the lives of the people of Gaza. America strongly affirms Israel's right to defend itself.”