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Dec 7, 2023 | In The News

The Hill

Tensions are rising within the Democratic Party around how to best condemn Hamas for sexual violence in its war with Israel, an escalating battle prompting fury from the White House to Capitol Hill.

Democrats have expressed strong criticism over instances of violence and rape by Hamas — the Palestinian terrorist organization responsible for the Oct. 7 attack on Israel — toward Israeli women.

But many in the party say progressives have in recent days prevaricated or have not gone far enough to address the human rights violation of using sexual violence as a war weapon, prompting an outpouring of anger throughout the fractured party.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), sparked intense backlash this week after she called for a “balanced” approach when answering a question from CNN’s Dana Bash about Hamas’s possible use of rape as a war tool. 

After calling out the “horrific” tactic several times, the congresswoman added what many perceived to be a caveat. “I think we have to be balanced about bringing in the outrages against Palestinians,” she said.

Jayapal, who presides over the biggest caucus among House Democrats, later clarified those remarks, an indication that she faced pressure from within her ranks over her initial response.  

“My comment about balance was not about rape, and not intended to minimize rape and sexual assault in any way. It was about recognizing the tremendous pain and trauma of so many—Israelis, Palestinians and their diaspora communities—in this terrible war,” Jayapal wrote in a statement Tuesday. 

The heightened anger, however, has highlighted growing fault lines between how the left and moderates are handling egregious elements of the conflict through their messaging and advocacy. Democrats overwhelmingly acknowledged Hamas’s responsibility for the deadly attack but have offered a range of opinions over how to handle the broader geopolitical debate around Palestinian liberation and the Israeli government.

“It is possible to both want an end to war and to condemn premeditated sexual assaults by terrorists,” said Shannon Watts, a prominent social justice activist. “To equivocate or deny the atrocities that were perpetrated on girls and women in Israel on Oct. 7 politicizes their pain and emboldens their perpetrators.” 

Discussions around violent sexual acts are the latest development in the Middle East war that’s reached its two-month mark, and Democrats are considering how to respond as new details emerge. A flurry of gruesome on-the-ground videos and images have inspired widespread outrage from both sides of the aisle, but other accounts and information have not yet been verified, creating additional challenges for officials to answer with nuance and accuracy as rhetoric and divisions become more heated.  

Moderates and some fellow progressives are pointing to Jayapal’s on-air comments over the weekend — where she appeared to turn attention to Israeli actions against Palestinians when addressing Bash’s question about rape ­— as unhelpful in supporting a party-line stance against sexual violence.

“I think it couldn’t hurt,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a leading Jewish Democrat in the House, told The Hill when asked whether the CPC should release a united statement from its members specifically condemning sexual violence by Hamas. Gottheimer is one of several top centrists who have been critical of progressives’ responses to the conflict.  

The Progressive Caucus did not respond to a request for a comment about whether such a statement was in the works.

“Acknowledging and condemning gender-based violence is the floor of what should be expected from any public servant, regardless of their political party,” Watts said.

Two fellow female Democratic lawmakers in the lower chamber — Reps. Debbie Dingell (Mich.) and Lois Frankel (Fla.) — are in the process of drafting a resolution that would condemn Hamas’s violence toward women. 

Dingell, who said she has spent “the last seven weeks researching the raping of women that has occurred in the Mideast,” called it “outrageous” in an interview with CNN.

“I condemn it,” she said. “This is going to be an issue I am seriously going to take on,” she added, saying she received threats and had certain personal details revealed after speaking out. 

The escalation comes as others in the party have criticized the United Nations, including its special division that deals with international abuses against women, for providing what they see as inadequate response at a critical moment.

“U.N. Women cannot expect to be viewed as an honest advocate for women’s rights if it continues to ignore Israeli women and women of other nationalities brutalized by Hamas terrorists on October 7th in an attack that claimed the lives of 1200+ Israelis and injured thousands more,” Reps. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-Fla.) and Young Kim (R-Calif.) wrote as part of a bipartisan campaign to evoke action from the coalition.  

The White House weighed in on the growing dispute within the party Monday, as President Biden’s response to the war has also lost popularity recently among some key voting blocs. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration believes “the use of rape as being used as a weapon” is “reprehensible” without elaborating further. 

As national attention turns to further investigating possible instances of sexual crimes by the terrorist organization, both wings of the party have yet to reach a consensus over other aspects of the war, notably deescalation techniques and the role of the U.S. government in it. Many left-wing lawmakers and aligned activists have renewed their calls for a cease-fire, after Hamas released some hostages during a seven-day cease-fire that ended last week.

Some, like Jayapal, are defending progressives’ posture by urging more balance when discussing the death toll and treatment of Palestinians in Gaza.

“We can all unequivocally condemn the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, a sentiment which implicitly opposes the rape and other horrific violence committed that day,” said Hassan Martini, a senior Democratic strategist, suggesting that the act of condemnation is not the difficult part in the wartime discourse. 

“This sort of implication — that those who support a cease-fire do not care for women’s rights — is incredibly damaging,” he said, addressing the point of criticism that has become more targeted at progressives this month.  

“We can condemn Hamas’s violent assaults and also speak for the women in Palestine who are dying in the thousands from Israeli bombardment. First and foremost, women deserve to live, no matter their culture or politics,” he said.

Martini’s view is commonly held among progressives who say that Democrats should advocate more strongly for humane treatment of Palestinians. Some Jewish progressive Democrats have echoed those calls, urging the U.S. to respond to Palestinian deaths and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza with equal urgency and assistance.  

“There is a growing proportion of American Jews saying that our basic values of b’tzelem elohim, that all human life is precious, must apply to Palestinians just as they apply to Israelis,” said Eva Borgwardt, the national spokesperson for IfNotNow, a progressive Jewish grassroots organization.  

“On Instagram, young Jews are seeing posts about Israelis held hostage or killed on Oct. 7 as well as firsthand accounts from young people in Gaza whose loved ones are dead or trapped under the rubble,” Borgwardt said. “The disastrous legacy of the U.S. war in Iraq looms large in recent memory.” 

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