Dissent over US policy in the Israel-Gaza war stirs unusual public protests from federal employees


Federal government workers from the State Department to Nasa are circulating open letters demanding that US President Joe Biden pursue a ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas. Congressional staff are picking up microphones in front of the Capitol, speaking out to condemn what they say is the silence of lawmakers about the toll on Palestinian civilians.
As the deaths soar in Gaza, Biden and Congress are facing unusually public challenges from the inside over their support for Israel’s offensive. Hundreds of staff members in the administration and on Capitol Hill are signing on to open letters, speaking to reporters and holding vigils, all in an effort to shift US policy toward more urgent action to stem Palestinian casualties.

“Most of our bosses on Capitol Hill are not listening to the people they represent,” one of the congressional staff members told the crowd at a protest this month. Wearing medical masks that obscured their faces, the roughly 100 congressional aides heaped flowers in front of Congress to honour the civilians killed in the conflict.


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Where China stands on the Israel-Gaza war

The objections coming from federal employees over the United States’ military and other backing for Israel’s Gaza campaign is partly an outgrowth of the changes happening more broadly across American society. As the United States becomes more diverse, so does the federal workforce, including more appointees of Muslim and Arab heritage. And surveys show public opinion shifting regarding US ally Israel, with more people expressing unhappiness over the hard-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After weeks of seeing images of bloodied children and fleeing families in Gaza, a significant number of Americans, including from Biden’s Democratic Party, disagree with his support of Israel’s military campaign. A poll by Associated Press and NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research in early November found 40 per cent of the US public believed Israel’s response in Gaza had gone too far. The war has roiled universities and set off nationwide protests.

As of late this past week, one open letter had been endorsed by 650 staff members of diverse religious backgrounds from more than 30 federal agencies, organisers said. The agencies range from the Executive Office of the President to the Census Bureau and include the State Department, US Agency for International Development and the Department of Defence.

A Biden political appointee who helped organise the multi-agency open letter said the president’s rejection of appeals to push Netanyahu for a long-term ceasefire had left some federal staff feeling “dismissed, in a way.”

“That’s why people are using all sorts of dissent cables and open letters. Because we’ve already gone through the channels of trying to do it internally,” this person said.

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The letter condemns both the Hamas killings of about 1,200 people in Israel in the militants’ October 7 incursion and the Israeli military campaign, which has killed more than 11,500 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

The letter calls for the US to push for a ceasefire and a release of hostages held by Hamas and of Palestinians that the signers say are unjustly detained by Israel, as well as greater action overall on behalf of Gaza’s civilians.

The organisers of the executive branch and congressional protests all spoke to Associated Press on condition of anonymity, citing fear of professional and other repercussions. The federal employees speaking up in opposition to the US policy appear to be seeking a balance, raising their objections in a way that does not deprive them of a seat at the table and risk their careers.

Some current and former officials and staff said it’s the public nature of some of the challenges from federal employees that is unusual. It worries some, as a potential threat to government function and to cohesion within agencies.

Protesters rally in support of Palestinians in front of the White House in Washington on Sunday. Photo: AFP
The State Department has an honoured tradition of allowing formal, structured statements of dissent to US policy. It dates to 1970, when US diplomats resisted President Richard Nixon’s demands to fire foreign service officers and other State Department employees who signed an internal letter protesting against the US carpet-bombing of Cambodia.
Ever since, foreign service officers and civil servants have used what is known as the dissent channel at moments of intense policy debate. That includes criticism of the George W Bush administration’s prosecution of the war in Iraq, the Obama administration’s policies in Syria, the Trump administration’s immigration restrictions on mainly Muslim countries and the Biden administration’s handling of the 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But dissent cables, which are signed, are classified and not for public release.

In State Department tradition, at least, if “for whatever reason a criticism or complaint were not taken into account or were not believed to be sufficient to change policy, well, then, it was time to move on. It was done,’’ said Thomas Shannon, a retired career foreign service officer who served in senior positions at the State Department. “It was time to salute, and execute.”

Shannon was briefly interim secretary of state in the Trump administration. There, he fended off a recommendation from White House spokesman Sean Spicer that State Department staff who signed a dissent cable against former president Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban should quit.

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Growing diversity of the State Department’s workforce is a positive, Shannon said. But “in the foreign service as in military service, discipline is real and it’s important,” he said, citing the need for consistent, cohesive foreign policy.

State Department officials say several expressions of dissent have made their way through the formal channels to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the dissent was welcome. “One of the strengths of this department is that we do have people with different opinions,” he said.

The USAID letter with 1,000 staff members backing it, which was given to The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and others, calls for an immediate ceasefire. But one long-time USAID staff member said it distressed some of the agency’s staff, including some who are Jewish, by not addressing the Hamas killings of civilians in Israel.


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