Biden’s Israel Weapons Pause Won’t Dent Gaza Protests, Organizers Say

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest as they take part in the "Biden: stop supporting genocide!" rally in New York City, US, January 20, 2024. (Reuters)
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest as they take part in the "Biden: stop supporting genocide!" rally in New York City, US, January 20, 2024. (Reuters)
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Biden’s Israel Weapons Pause Won’t Dent Gaza Protests, Organizers Say

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest as they take part in the "Biden: stop supporting genocide!" rally in New York City, US, January 20, 2024. (Reuters)
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest as they take part in the "Biden: stop supporting genocide!" rally in New York City, US, January 20, 2024. (Reuters)

US President Joe Biden's decision to pause shipments of thousands of bombs to Israel over the US ally's attacks on Rafah won praise from some critical Democrats, but won't stop protests about Gaza that have dogged his reelection effort, strategists and organizers say.

Biden's decision last week marks the first time he has withheld US military aid from Israel since the country began attacking Gaza seven months ago, pursuing Hamas gunmen. Republicans and some Democrats have accused Biden of putting the security of the US's closest ally in the region at risk.

It is also too little, too late, to satisfy the left-leaning coalition of young voters and people of color who have led the protests against Israel's attacks, many say.

Pro-Palestinian protests have swept college campuses across the country, followed Biden at private events and pushed Democrats in key battleground states to vote "uncommitted" to signal their unhappiness as deaths in Israeli-occupied Gaza climbed to 35,000.

"We welcome Biden's words and this gesture toward taking responsibility for US complicity in these crimes," said Stephanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group whose members are involved with protests around the country, including on college campuses.

"If his words are to mean anything, rather than a one-off pause, this needs to be the start of a sea change in US policy," Fox said.

Protesters are seeking suspension of military aid to Israel, a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and for universities to divest from companies that support Israel's actions in Gaza. Israel is retaliating for Hamas’ attacks on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200.

"I think Biden's comments yesterday moves the needle... but what we don't know is if it's a PR move to try to placate some of his opponents on this issue or if it's real because he has also said his support for Israel is ironclad," said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK, another group whose members have been participating in protests all over the country.

"We will continue protesting," Benjamin said.

Biden has called for a temporary ceasefire and said he supports an eventual two-state solution. While he has been increasingly critical of the Israeli government, billions more in weapons shipments remain in the pipeline.

On Friday, Israeli troops took their ground war with Palestinian fighters into city of Rafah, as the United Nations warned that aid for the devastated Gaza Strip could grind to a halt in days.

ISRAEL IS A TOP ISSUE FOR SMALL GROUP Stanley Greenberg, a veteran pollster who has worked for top US Democrats and Israelis, held a focus group on Wednesday with voters under 45 years old, and Gaza was one of the top issues raised after rising prices.

"It was top of mind for them," he said about Gaza. Asked whether "the US has gone too far in support of Israel, a plurality say yes."

Some pollsters and the Biden reelection campaign believe the issue only resonates for a small group of people. "It's very important to some people, but they're in the minority in the electorate," said Patrick Murray, director of the Polling Institute at Monmouth University.

The campaign’s message is that Biden is experienced in diplomatic matters and going to make tough and necessary decisions regardless of the polls, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Americans' support for military aid to Israel has dropped in recent months, as has young voter support for Biden, polls show. He has struggled with tepid approval for most of his term in a sharply divided country.

Biden's margin of victory in some key battleground states was slim, and it would not take much of a slip in support from many such voters who backed him in 2020 to throw his reelection bid into question, analysts say.

Waleed Shahid, a Democratic adviser to the national "uncommitted" movement asking voters to pick another candidate in state primaries, called Biden's comment a "small step forward" and said it shows the US has leverage in its dealings with Israel.

Shahid, however, said "until actions are taken to stop the arms sales for [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's war, a lot of Biden's base, a lot of the Democratic Party is going to continue to be fractured on this issue."

Other groups urged Biden to act more decisively in confronting Israel instead of looking for a middle ground if he wants to put the Democratic coalition back together.



Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
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Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)

At weddings, football matches and other special events, some Iraqi men like to fire salvos of celebratory gunfire into the sky, worrying little about where the bullets might fall.

For some Iraqis, the tradition has been devastating, as have random bullets from sporadic gun battles in a society still awash with weapons after decades of war and turmoil.

Baghdad mother Randa Ahmad was busy with chores when a loud bang startled her. Alarmed, she hurried to the living room to find her four-year-old son Mohamed bleeding on the floor.

"A stray bullet hit him in the head," the 30-year-old said weeks later, her child sitting timidly by her side in their suburban house.

The bullet "came out of nowhere", said Ahmad, who doesn't know who fired it or why.

Her child now suffers from severe headaches and tires easily, but doctors say surgery to remove the bullet is too risky.

"If the bullet moves," Ahmad said, "it could cause paralysis."

Celebratory gunfire and gun battles sometimes sparked by minor feuds are a daily occurrence in Iraq, where firearms possession remains widespread despite a period of relative calm.

Iraq, a country of 43 million, endured wars under ruler dictator Saddam Hussein, the 2003 US-led invasion, and the sectarian conflict and extremist insurgencies that followed.

During the years of bloody turmoil, all types of weapons flooded into the country and have often been used in tribal disputes and political score-settling.

Many households claim to own firearms for protection.

As of 2017, some 7.6 million arms -- handguns, rifles and shotguns -- were held by civilians in Iraq, says monitoring group the Small Arms Survey, which believes the number has since risen.

- 'Bullet fell from the sky' -

Saad Abbas was in his garden in Baghdad when he was jolted by a sharp, searing pain in his shoulder.

"At first, I thought someone had hit me with a stone," the 59-year-old said. Then he realized that a "bullet fell from the sky" and hit him.

Months later, he remains mostly bedridden, the projectile still lodged in his shoulder after doctors advised against surgery because of a pre-existing medical condition.

"I can't raise my hand," he said. "It hurts. I can't even remove my bed cover."

Abbas voiced fury at those who fire off celebratory rounds when "a football team wins, during a wedding or an engagement party".

"Where do the bullets go?" he asked. "They fall on people!"

He decried the rampant gun ownership and said that "weapons should be exclusively in the hands of the state".

Iraqi law punishes illegal firearms possession with up to one year in prison, but authorities announced plans last year to tighten controls.

Security forces have urged civilians to register their guns in 697 centers, allowing each family to possess just one light weapon for "protection", said interior ministry spokesman Miqdad Miri.

The government also recently started offering civilians up to $4,000 to buy their weapons.

But Miri acknowledged that in tribal and rural areas, many people "consider weapons a part of their identity".

In recent years, their collections have been swelled by the "huge quantities" of firearms left behind by the Iraqi army during the US-led invasion, he said.

During the tumultuous years since, weak border controls and the emergence of extremists allowed arms trafficking to thrive.

- 'Attached to their weapons' -

"Our main problem is not small arms but medium and large weapons," Miri said, referring to military-issue assault rifles and other powerful guns.

Security expert Ahmed el-Sharifi also said that "civilians are attached to their weapons" but that even harder to control are the arsenals of "armed political groups and tribes... This is the most dangerous."

Despite the state's efforts to control the gun scourge, the problem frequently makes headlines.

Earlier this year, a video went viral showing armed clashes between relatives in a busy market in eastern Baghdad that left one person dead.

In March, a senior intelligence officer was shot dead when he tried to resolve a tribal dispute.

And in April, celebratory gunfire at a wedding took the life of the groom in the northern city of Mosul.

Last year, another man, Ahmed Hussein, 30, said he was hit in the leg, presumably also by a bullet fired at a wedding.

He said he had just gone for a nap when he was startled by gunfire and then felt a sharp pain.

"I fell out of bed and looked at my leg to find it bleeding," Hussein said.

He too decried how even a simple argument "between children or at a football game" can quickly lead to someone squeezing a trigger, with those paying the price often "innocent bystanders".