Protest against Joe Biden in the White House at a meeting with Muslim Americans

Shortly after the conversation began, Taer Ahmad, a doctor from Chicago who was volunteering in Gaza, said he was leaving the meeting

by Sededin Dedovic
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Protest against Joe Biden in the White House at a meeting with Muslim Americans
© Kent Nishimura / Getty Images

Tensions between the US government and the Palestinian-American community reached a boiling point during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. While there were protests across the country against US support for the Israeli military operation, there was also a dramatic scene of discontent within the White House itself.

At the heart of that drama was an informal meeting in the Oval, held to hear the views of American Muslims on the war. President Biden, Vice President Harris and top security officials were in attendance, but the atmosphere suddenly became electrifying.

Taer Ahmad, a Palestinian-American doctor from Chicago who was providing immediate medical assistance in Gaza few month ago, decided to leave the meeting at the outset. His gesture was shocking and symbolic, and it raised important questions about the extent to which American policy in the Middle East is based on actually listening to all sides in the conflict.

Before leaving, Dr. Ahmad handed President Biden a letter and a photograph of an eight-year-old Palestinian girl from Rafah, the town that was the next target of the Israeli offensive. The photo mercilessly depicted the brutal reality of war for civilians, and the letter probably contained sincere pleas for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators call for a ceasefire in Gaza during a protest as part of the Peoples White House Ceasefire Now If© Kent Nishimura / Getty Images

The president's response, according to Ahmad's later statements, was short and insufficient: "I understand." This frustrated Dr.

Ahmad and many other Palestinian Americans who felt that the US administration was not doing enough to stop Israeli bombing and protect Palestinian civilians. The source of dissatisfaction lies in inequality. While Israel, with American military assistance, had far superior firepower, Palestinian civilian areas suffered massive losses.

According to reports at the time, Hamas was responsible for the deaths of over 1,200 Israelis during the conflict, while the Israeli offensive claimed over 33,000 Palestinian lives. Although President Biden's administration has expressed concern about civilian casualties, its staunch support for Israel, including approval of US arms sales, has shown no sign of abating.

For many Americans of Palestinian descent, this seemed like a tacit approval of the Palestinian tragedy. "There has been a change in rhetoric," said Dr. Ahmad, "but in actual actions we have not seen a significant change." This feeling of neglect and disregard has prompted Muslim Americans to raise their voices and express their anger.

Moreover, the circumstances of the White House meeting were indicative in themselves. Instead of the traditional iftar dinner marking the end of Ramadan, the White House held this informal meeting. Several prominent figures from the Muslim community declined the invitations, saying it would be inappropriate to end the fast and speak with the president while a humanitarian disaster is unfolding in Gaza.

The White House defense was cautious. Karin Jean-Pierre, the press secretary, said the government understood the feelings of the Muslim community, but was tight-lipped on details about the meeting itself, citing the privacy of the conversation.

However, under pressure from journalists to comment on Ahmad's decision to leave the meeting, Mrs. Jean-Pierre admitted that the president respects the right to peaceful protest. However, this did little to calm the inflamed feelings among the Palestinian-American community.

Ahmad later stated that when he accepted the invitation to the meeting, he was under the impression that it would be an opportunity for a direct dialogue with the president about the situation on the ground. He intended to convey firsthand the horrors and hardships he saw while working as a volunteer in Gaza.

U.S. President Joe Biden (L) takes selfies with guests during a reception celebrating Eid-al-Fitr in the East Room of the White © Alex Wong / Getty Images

But as the date of the meeting approached, Ahmad's excitement turned to disappointed misgivings.

A series of news stories about US arms sales to Israel appeared to contradict US statements of concern about civilian casualties. He asked himself, "What is the purpose of this meeting? What will I accomplish by being there?" This doubt culminated in the decision to leave the meeting at the very beginning.

He saw it as the only way to make his voice heard and to draw attention to the apparent inconsistency of American policy. "I'm not going to yell at anybody. I'm not going to throw anything. I'm just going to walk out calmly," Ahmad said, describing his decision.

"That's what I did." Ahmad's gesture sparked a storm of media reactions and sparked important discussions about America's role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many analysts believe that the incident revealed deep divisions within the American public on this complex issue.

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