US federal workers risk livelihoods in push for course change on Gaza war

Government employees call a ‘day of mourning’ in the latest sign of internal discontent over Biden administration policy.

Gaza ceasefire
A man outside the White House holds up a poster in support of the Israeli captives behind a large banner that says, 'Biden: Ceasefire Now' [Andrew Harnik/AP]

Washington, DC – When your children ask you what you did during the war in Gaza, what will you say?

That’s how one federal government employee in the United States described her motivation for organising her colleagues around a “day of mourning” on Tuesday to recognise more than 100 days of war in the Palestinian enclave.

She and a group of federal workers, acting anonymously under the name Feds United for Peace, agreed to take leave from their jobs en masse, in an demonstration against the rising death toll in Gaza and the US’s role in the war.

The move is the latest underscoring the discontent within President Joe Biden’s administration. Biden has voiced “rock-solid and unwavering” support for Israel, despite mounting human rights concerns over its months-long military campaign in Gaza.

More than 24,200 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting, and nearly 1.9 million displaced.

“When your kids ask you, ‘What did you do?’, we don’t want to say that we just watched from the sidelines. And we hope that everyone who has a conscience looks at this situation and takes it upon themselves to not watch from the sidelines,” said the organiser, who added that she had more than 15 years of experience in the federal government.

She and a second organiser spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions. They said the group represents employees — both career professionals and political appointees — across 27 government agencies, including the White House and Congress.

“We are really not activists. There may be, among our group, people who are political appointees, but we’re not political in any way,” said the second organiser.

“This group really grows out of this immense frustration and sadness at seeing the war continue for so long — the massive death and destruction unfolding in Gaza over the last 100 days,” he said.

Months of internal discord

Members of the Biden administration have repeatedly voiced frustration with the president’s stance and called for a ceasefire in Gaza, including through public statements and open letters.

There have even been high-profile resignations. State Department official Josh Paul left his post over Biden’s handling of the war, as did Tariq Habash in the Department of Education.

Habash had been the department’s only Palestinian American political appointee at the time of his departure. He later told Al Jazeera that leaving was “the only thing” he could do in the face of a US policy that has had a “near-daily dehumanising effect” on Palestinians.

Nevertheless, Washington continues to provide military aid to Israel, without setting “red lines” to limit its use. An estimated $3.8bn is earmarked annually for the country, with Biden bypassing Congress twice last month to approve further sales of weaponry.

The Biden administration has recently called on the Israeli government to shift towards more targeted operations with fewer civilian casualties, but Palestinian American advocates have said those words ring hollow without more decisive action.

Biden also provoked the ire of Palestinian rights supporters after he questioned the death toll provided by authorities in Gaza.

That is why the latest move by federal employees “is not something that is coming out of the blue”, said Jasmine El-Gamal, a foreign policy analyst and former Middle East adviser at the Pentagon.

“We’ve seen months now of federal employees, both in the executive branch and the legislative branch, trying to bring attention to the fact that there is a huge level of dissent within the Biden administration and from people working on Biden’s campaign as well, against his policies when it comes to Gaza,” El-Gamal told Al Jazeera.

Critics said Biden’s statement on Sunday to mark the 100th day of the war echoed a pattern of dehumanisation towards Palestinians.

The US president decried the “devastating and tragic milestone” for those held captive by Hamas, the group that attacked southern Israel on October 7, killing an estimated 1,139 Israelis and kidnapping hundreds more.

But Biden made no mention of the profound death toll in Gaza and the ongoing humanitarian crisis there. United Nations experts have warned of a “grave risk of genocide” in the territory.

Those human rights concerns have led to an “extremely uncommon, if not unprecedented”, level of dissent within the Biden administration, according to Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“We have seen nothing like this,” Parsi said. He explained it took years for members of other administrations to organise in protest of their president. “Even during the Iraq war, for instance — not just in the beginning but also after — more and more lawmakers started to express concerns and opposition by 2004, 2005.”

While members of the Democratic Party in Congress remain predominantly pro-Israel, some have come forward to demand a ceasefire and push for more oversight over weapons transfers to Israel.

At least 63 members of Congress have called for an outright halt to the fighting. On Tuesday, progressive Senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation that would require the US to conduct a human rights review of Israel before any more arms were transferred.

The dismay over the administration’s policies has also resulted in a potentially damaging political fallout for Biden on the campaign trail, as he seeks reelection in 2024.

The Democrat’s support among Arab and Muslim voters has plummeted to an all-time low, according to a poll conducted in October. Biden is widely expected to face former President Donald Trump in a general election in November.

“One of the critical qualities that Biden, frankly any Democrat, had immediately over Trump was to have the moral upper hand in the eyes of many of those in his own base,” Parsi said.

“Biden has squandered that by supporting a slaughter in Gaza, refusing to listen and even spreading misinformation about it.”

‘Our livelihoods at risk’

But for those seeking to send a message to Biden from within his administration, the stakes are high.

Following a report on Feds United for Peace’s planned action last week on the Al-Monitor website, House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, tweeted: “Any government worker who walks off the job to protest US support for our ally Israel is ignoring their responsibility and abusing the trust of taxpayers.”

“They deserve to be fired,” he wrote, adding he would “work to ensure that each federal agency initiates appropriate disciplinary proceedings against any person who walks out on their job”.

One of the organisers for Feds United for Peace told Al Jazeera: “As a federal workforce, we are prohibited by law from striking, and so this action was never a strike.”

“It was never designed as a walkout. It was designed as a day of mourning. And employees took different types of leave for this day of mourning and used it in different ways,” she said, adding that watching the “horrors unfold” in Gaza “has taken a tremendous toll on people who care about what’s going on”.

“This was also an opportunity for people to just take a day and take care of themselves in order to continue their work and the struggle,” she said.

“Even though we are trying to protect ourselves, I think each one of us recognises that we’re putting our livelihoods at risk,” said the second organiser. While the organiser did not say how many were participating in the walkout, he did say that participation “has exceeded expectations”.

Many, however, are keeping a low profile, “as a result of perceived intimidation”.

The group is appealing for the Biden administration to support an immediate ceasefire, stop undermining international efforts to hold Israel accountable, prioritise the entry of humanitarian goods into Gaza and help facilitate the release of captives.

“We went into public service to serve the United States, to try to reflect what is best about the United States,” said the first organiser. “And so in this particular case, we feel it is a moral obligation and a patriotic duty to our country to use the means at our disposal to try to urge a course change in the White House policy.”

Source: Al Jazeera