Palestinian American doctor walks out of Biden meeting in protest

Palestinian American doctor walks out of Biden meeting in protest

By Alex Marquardt, Betsy Klein and Khalil Abdallah, CNN

9 minute read

Updated 11:07 PM EDT, Tue April 2, 2024

WashingtonCNN —  A Palestinian American doctor walked out of a meeting with President Joe Biden before it was over Tuesday evening, underscoring the high tensions, anger and concern from Arab, Palestinian and Muslim American communities amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Dr. Thaer Ahmad, an emergency physician from Chicago who traveled to Gaza earlier this year, told CNN he abruptly left the meeting that included Vice President Kamala Harris, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, other administration officials and a small group of Muslim community leaders.

While the president has often faced protests and interruptions at public events in the last several months, Ahmad’s decision to leave the meeting is perhaps the most intimate moment of protest the president has faced to date since Israel’s campaign in Gaza began following Hamas’ October 7 attack. It’s a stark reminder to the president of the political problem he faces with key parts of his coalition — including Arab and Muslim Americans and progressive voters — as his administration continues to stand by and support Israel’s war in the Palestinian enclave.

CNN previously reported that what was supposed to be an iftar dinner to break the Ramadan fast was changed to a meeting because participants didn’t feel comfortable having a celebratory meal while hundreds of thousands in Gaza are on the brink of famine. It’s another example of the administration’s fraying relationship with the Muslim American community — other attempts at holding meetings in key states have been hampered by declined invitations, and relationships with important community groups have frayed since the war began.

Following the meeting, a White House official said in a statement that “President Biden and Vice President Harris know this is a deeply painful moment for many in the Muslim and Arab communities.”

Biden, the official said, “made clear that he mourns the loss of every innocent life in this conflict” and expressed commitment “to continue working to secure an immediate ceasefire as part of a deal to free the hostages and significantly increase humanitarian aid into Gaza.”

Ahmad traveled to Gaza as part of a delegation of doctors from the NGO MedGlobal, working in the city of Khan Younis as fighting raged around the Nasser Hospital. He discussed his experience there, citing massive numbers of displaced, injured and dying people, and he spoke out against an expected Israeli offensive in Rafah.

“I said it was disappointing I’m the only Palestinian here, and out of respect for my community, I’m going to leave,” Ahmad said he told the president.

Before he left, he handed Biden a letter from an eight-year-old orphaned girl, Hadeel, who is living in Rafah.

“I beg you, President Biden, stop them from entering Rafah,” a translation of the letter shared with CNN says. US officials have warned Israel not to expand its military operations into Rafah without a comprehensive plan to protect civilian lives.

Biden told him he understood that he needed to leave, Ahmad said.

Ahmad said he felt it was important to attend the meeting, though he reiterated he did not feel it was appropriate to talk about death and famine over a dinner. Multiple invited guests declined the invitation.

“I wanted a chance to stand up and walk away from the people making decisions the way they are walking from my people,” Ahmad said.

Ahmad is planning to return to Gaza in the coming weeks.

“There’s this tremendous amount of survivors’ guilt that all Palestinians are feeling right now,” he said. “We are living this and breathing this – our entire lives have been changed. It’s hard to be here and live my life normally thinking about people who are over there suffering – especially having two daughters.”

Ahmad said he also wanted to counter the assertion that Hamas is using hospitals, shelters and schools as bases and command centers.

“We had not seen anything of that nature,” he said.

Later Tuesday night, Ahmad again pleaded for the Biden administration to take a stronger stance on protections for aid workers and civilians in Gaza, telling CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, “It cannot just be rhetoric. It can’t just be the president saying he’s very sorry and demanding answers.”

“Gaza is becoming unlivable. I mean, there is nothing left there. There’s no schools, and people are living in tents in a very cramped area. … It just seems that the White House has not decided to take that leap and really put their foot down,” he added on “The Source.”

Attendee on meeting: ‘It really felt like it was kind a PR move’

Dr. Nahreen Ahmed, an ICU physician in Philadelphia who also attended the meeting, told CNN that her colleague Ahmad made a “heartfelt plea” before he walked out of the meeting.

“This was not him as a doctor, this was him as a Palestinian American, having witnessed the atrocities that he saw firsthand. Thaer and I were both in Gaza together. We watched far too many people killed, coming in dead on arrival in the emergency room,” said Ahmed, who is the medical director at the NGO MedGlobal.

“That’s a voice that doesn’t get to vent their frustrations and talk about how much it affects them, because they’re not invited to the table. And so it was a really important moment to be able to exercise that right,” she added.

Following Ahmad’s departure, Ahmed said the five other attendees from the Muslim American community took turns speaking on different topics at the meeting, which lasted more than an hour and left some attendees frustrated.

“I felt like maybe this was not necessarily a meeting where anything actionable was meant to happen, or be promised, but that it was that it really felt like it was kind a PR move, to be able to say we met with the Muslim community,” Ahmed said.

A doctor described what’s happening on the ground with aid distribution and overwhelmed hospitals.

Another attendee discussed the need for maritime support. An imam called on Biden to reset his moral compass, according to Ahmed. And Ahmed detailed the “dire situation with malnutrition and the violation of international humanitarian law and the effects of that on patients, on hospital systems.”

Following the listening session, Ahmed said that Biden initially responded with a focus on the terrors of October 7.

“He kind of went back to that and said, ‘You know, I hear what everybody’s saying, but like, think about the young people that were killed on October 7.’ And it kind of dismissed the over 30,000 people dead in Palestine,” she said.

Biden went on to discuss the complexity of eradicating Hamas and ongoing talks with leaders in the region working toward a ceasefire, Ahmed said.

Ahmed told CNN she felt it was important to attend and humanize the suffering she has witnessed firsthand in Gaza, where she plans to return in the coming weeks.

Ahmed said that became clear in a moment where Harris asked her what the people in Gaza are eating.

“I said, ‘Well, mostly, they’re not eating anything. But, if you’re asking about the animals feed, like, yes, people are eating animal feed.’ And she looked like she was hearing that for the first time as a confirmed thing,” Ahmed said, adding that it confirmed to her that “these conversations need to happen.”

Harris, however, has forcefully spoken out against what she has cast as a “humanitarian catastrophe” and a “crisis” – and has highlighted reports of people eating animal feed in past public remarks.

Last month, during remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, Harris said, “What we are seeing every day in Gaza is devastating. We have seen reports of families eating leaves or animal feed, women giving birth to malnourished babies with little or no medical care, and children dying from malnutrition and dehydration.”

White House changed plans after pushback over starving Gazans

The White House had shifted plans for Biden to host an iftar dinner Tuesday night to break the Ramadan fast with Muslim community leaders, instead deciding to hold a meeting with the group as the administration faces anger and concern from Arab, Palestinian and Muslim American communities amid the Israel-Hamas war.

A White House official said earlier Tuesday that Biden would instead host a small dinner with senior Muslim administration officials, but outside attendees were expected only to go to the meeting after significant pushback from expected attendees, sources told CNN.

“There was a significant amount of pushback from attendees that it would be inappropriate to raise the humanitarian crisis in Gaza over dinner,” a person familiar with the meeting told CNN. “There’s a famine in Gaza, 23 children have died from starvation in Northern Gaza. I don’t think anybody would be comfortable sharing those stories and images over dinner.”

Another source familiar with the plans said that there was little interest from participants in wanting to eat and celebrate and that it became clear it would be more fitting to hold a policy discussion.

CNN had previously reported that several people who were invited to attend have declined, sources said, citing frustration with the administration’s support of Israel amid the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

And a third source told CNN, “Basically the sentiment we heard over and over again was that anybody going to the iftar while Palestinians are being killed and starved should be ashamed of themselves.”

The moment is significantly scaled back from previous Ramadan observations during the Biden administration. Last year, the White House did not hold an iftar dinner – the breaking of the daily fast after sundown – but hosted nearly 350 people for a reception celebrating Eid al-Fitr, a festival marking the end of Ramadan.

“Continuing his tradition of honoring the Muslim community during Ramadan, President Biden will host a meeting with Muslim community leaders to discuss issues of importance to the community,” a White House official said.

The iftar following the meeting was described by the White House official as “a small breaking of the fast, prayer, and iftar with a number of senior Muslim administration officials.”

This year, Ramadan comes as more than 32,000 people have been killed since Israel launched a ferocious campaign in Gaza against Hamas in the wake of the terror group’s brutal attacks on October 7, according to the Gaza health ministry. Biden has called for an immediate ceasefire but has stopped short of saying it should be permanent or halting arms provisions to Israel.

White House officials have held several meetings with prominent Arab American and Muslim leaders in various cities. Last month, senior White House officials met with Arab, Muslim and Palestinian American community leaders in Chicago. Tom Perez, the White House director of intergovernmental affairs, and Steve Benjamin, director of public engagement, participated in the meeting, among others. But some of the invited participants declined to attend due to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Anger and concern about the administration’s handling of the conflict is also presenting political problems for Biden, including in battleground states such as Michigan, home to more than 200,000 Muslim American voters. In the state’s Democratic primary in February, more than 100,000 Democratic primary voters chose “uncommitted” to send a message to the president. Biden has also been repeatedly interrupted by activists on the campaign trail.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Jack Forrest contributed to this report.

Source: CNN