In call with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, US president also reiterates support for Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’.
United States President Joe Biden’s visit to an electric vehicle plant in Michigan has been met with boos as hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters rallied to condemn his administration’s stance on Israel’s ongoing bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
Biden was also criticised on Tuesday for joking about running over a reporter who seemingly wanted to ask about the violence during a trip to the Ford Motor Company facility in Dearborn, a city at the heart of Michigan’s large Arab-American community.
As Biden pulled up in front of journalists while test driving a Ford electric truck, a reporter asked if she could make a question about Israel.
“No, you can’t,” said Biden. “Not unless you get in front of the car as I step on it. I’m only teasing.”
He continued: “Okay, here we go ready?” he said before speeding away in the truck.
Meanwhile, Biden joked in Dearborn about running over a reporter asking him about Israel: “Can I ask you a quick question on Israel?
In truck, Biden replies: “No, you can’t. Not unless you get in front of the car as I step on it.”
Press corps chuckles. pic.twitter.com/3zPoHVNGHZ
— Niraj Warikoo (@nwarikoo) May 18, 2021
At a rally in Lapeer Park, more than 1,000 people gathered a few killometres away from Biden’s event and booed at mentions of the Democratic president’s name.
“Joe Biden is going to hear from us today, one way or another,” lawyer Amer Zahr told the crowd, who chanted, “free, free Palestine”.
“He is funding the murder of our families,” Zahr said. “It’s ethnic cleansing. It’s that simple. This is not very complicated.”
Protesters also gathered at the Dearborn Police station and at the American Moslem Society mosque in Dearborn and marched through residential neighourhoods.
— Miriam Marini (@miriammmarini) May 18, 2021
The Biden administration has come under increasing pressure to take a harder line against Israel during the ongoing bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip, which has destroyed infrastructure and hundreds of Palestinian homes and what critics say amounts to collective punishment.
To date, 219 Palestinians, including 63 children, have been killed by Israeli attacks in Gaza since the escalation began on May 10.
Twelve people in Israel, including two children, have been killed by rockets fired by armed groups from Gaza, which came after days of protests of the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem and resulting crackdowns and raids at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
On Monday, after days of public, largely unequivocal support for Israel, and silence on a ceasefire, Biden “expressed his support for a ceasefire” during a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, the administration has three times blocked a United Nations Security Council Joint Statement calling for a ceasefire, with the US saying it is working towards a resolution through its own diplomatic channels and a US envoy who has been sent to Israel.
In a speech during his visit to the plant, Biden made only passing mention of the conflict, addressing Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the first woman of Palestinian descent to be elected to US Congress, as she sat in the audience.
Biden said he would pray that her grandmother and other relatives were well in the occupied West Bank.
“I promise you I’m going to do everything to see that they are,” Biden said.
Tlaib is part of a small group of progressive legislators within Biden’s party to vocally condemn US support of Israel, with several accusing Israel of abuses and “apartheid” – allegations rarely made by US legislators against the close ally – in recent days.
The US provides about $2.8bn in aid annually to Israel as well as millions of dollars in arms sales.
During his trip, Biden met Tlaib and fellow Michigan Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell.
Tlaib told Biden that “Palestinian human rights are not a bargaining chip and must be protected, not negotiated,” according to an account provided by an ally of the congresswoman to Reuters news agency.