Biden pressed by Tlaib on Gaza as Arab Americans urge intervention

Dearborn — Moments after President Joe Biden landed in Michigan on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib pressed him to do more to protect Palestinian lives amid continued bloodshed in the Middle East.

During his Tuesday afternoon speech at a Ford Motor Co. truck plant in Dearborn, Biden publicly responded to Tlaib, a fellow Democrat and the daughter of Palestinian immigrants: "I want to say to you that I admire your intellect, I admire your passion, and I admire your concern for so many other people.

"And from my heart, I pray that your grandma and family are well, and I promise I'm going to do everything to see that they are on the West Bank. You're a fighter, and God thank you for being a fighter."

The president's appearance came as the battle that broke out earlier this month between Israel and Gaza raged on and multiple groups of Arab American leaders in Metro Detroit called on him to intervene amid protesting in the streets of Dearborn. The Biden administration has declined so far to publicly criticize Israel’s part in the fighting or send a top-level envoy to the region.

President Joe Biden speaks with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, right, as he arrives Tuesday, May 18, 2021, at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus

When he arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport earlier Tuesday, the president was greeted by Tlaib of Detroit and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn.

A Tlaib aide said the congresswoman conveyed to Biden the same messages she has shared on the House floor and publicly — that Palestinian human rights are not a "bargaining chip." She wants the White House to do more to protect Palestinian lives and questions a planned $735 million weapons sale by the United States to Israel.

Tlaib reiterated “the status quo is enabling more killing, that the U.S. approach of unconditional support for the Israeli government is not working," the aide said.

The president's reference to the fighting in Gaza came as Amer Zahr, comedian and president of New Generation for Palestine, led a crowd of more than 1,000 people outside the Dearborn Police Department on Michigan Avenue. A sea of red, black, white and green Palestinian flags waved across the majority Arab American city on the south end, which was blocked off to protesters during one of three Tuesday rallies. 

The crowd was escorted by Dearborn police as they marched down Michigan Avenue to Schaefer Road with megaphones and signs that read “if only the olive trees knew” chanting “free, free, Palestine.”

“We will deal with a lot, but you are not welcome in Dearborn today, Mr. President,” Zahr said. “This same president and Democrats that asked us to support them ... and he’s participating in and funding the murder of our families, the ethnic cleansing of our community. They say evictions, we say cleansing. This is not that complicated. While they chant death to Arabs, we just chant free, free, Palestine.”

The marches and protests in Dearborn occurred as Palestinians across Israel, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip went on strike Tuesday in a rare collective protest. Israeli missiles toppled a building in Gaza, and militants in the Hamas-ruled territory fired dozens of rockets that killed two people.

The White House's stance

The White House said Biden conveyed in a Monday call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he supports a ceasefire in Gaza, but the same day the U.S. blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an end to the fighting.

In remarks to reporters en route to Michigan, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden wants to see an end to the violence on the ground in Israel and "an end to the suffering of the Israeli and the Palestinian people." 

"As I've noted in the past, our focus and our strategy here is to work through quiet, intensive diplomacy," Psaki told reporters. 

"Every day it continues is one we'd like to see, of course, an end to the conflict. We continue to believe, as was clear in the readout of the president's call last night, that Israel has the right to defend itself."

Abdallah Sheikh, president of the American Muslim Political Action Committee, AMPAC speaks during the news conference to urge the Biden administration to take immediate action at the AMS Mosque in Dearborn, Michigan on May 18, 2021.

Former gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed joined Tuesday's demonstration that started at the Dearborn Police Department, arguing Palestinian rights are human rights. 

“I’m here today as a doctor, as a human, as an American,” said El-Sayed, adding Palestinians were denied COVID-19 vaccines by the Israeli government. “My government dollars are being spent today to kill innocent children.”

Earlier Tuesday, the American Humans Rights Council, the American and Muslim Political Action Committee, American Muslims for Palestine, the American Center for Justice and the American-Muslim Leadership Council gathered to make their own plea for Biden's help.  

Abdallah Sheikh, president of the American and Muslim Political Action Committee, led a morning press conference in the lot of the American Moslem Society mosque near Ford's Rouge Plant, noting the community's overwhelming support for Biden in the November election. 

“He is fair, he has a big heart, and he cares for justice,” Sheikh said of Biden. “We are asking him to cease the fire. We are asking him to end the war in Palestine. We are asking him to help.”

Nada Dalgamouni, global education director of the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit, Inc. brings a bouquet of flags of countries to the news conference, "The flags represent to you, that the whole world is saying the same thing, enough is enough."

Jewish leaders weigh in

The conflict was sparked when Gaza's militant Hamas rulers fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests against Israel’s heavy-handed policing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a site sacred to Jews and Muslims, along with the threat of eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.

At least 10 people in Israel have been killed in rocket attacks, the Israeli authorities told the New York Times. The death toll in Gaza itself has surpassed 200, including at least 61 children, health authorities in the territory told The Times.

Imad Hamad, executive director of the American Human Rights Council, penned an open letter to Biden on Tuesday, urging swift action.

"The fact that Israel bombed the media’s building is evidence that Israel is hitting civilian targets," the letter reads. "The goal of the Israeli war is to harm the population and terrorize it."

The "media building" refers to an Associated Press office space that was inside a building that an Israeli airstrike destroyed Saturday after the military issued advance notice of the bombing to AP.

Israel says Hamas, which also had space in the 11-story building, was the target of the attack. Hamas is the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.

The conflict between the two communities has gone on for decades over land and borders. Recent events have stemmed from a long-running legal effort by Jewish settler groups to evict several Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

As hundreds of Muslims packed into the iconic Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on May 7 to pray during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, riots broke out as worshipers threw stones at Israeli police officers who retaliated with stun grenades and fired rubber-coated bullets.

Lauren Herrin, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee, said the battling in Gaza is "very concerning on several fronts, especially the loss of life on both sides."

The rocket attacks would've likely killed many more people if not for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, said Herrin, who added it has intercepted hundreds of missiles.

The battle, while tragic, also has fighters on both sides, she said. Herrin said she considers it "misinformation" that the conflict is not presented as a mutual combat.

"It's not just Israel," Herrin said. "... It's not your nice elderly woman in Gaza — it's Hamas."

Reuben Telushkin, a national organizer for Jewish Voice for Peace, joined the marches in Dearborn Tuesday, saying now is the time for multiple faiths and cultures to join on a humanitarian issue, not an identity issue.  

“This is definitely a moment where more and more American Jews are finding their voice to stand up and call for an end to Israeli apartheid and calling on Biden to end the financial support of it,” said Telushkin, 33, of Detroit.

“We’re coming out to tell Biden that you can’t just come to Dearborn after authorizing the sale of $735 million in weapon sales to kill and displace hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem.”

Staff Writer Riley Beggin and Associated Press contributed.