Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a key Muslim American ally of President Joe Biden, said Wednesday it would be helpful for the president to speak out more forcefully about the imperative of protecting civilians in Gaza.
“I think it would help a lot,” Ellison told CNN on Wednesday after listening to Biden speak about rural investments on a corn and hog farm in Minnesota.
“Maybe it would help to reduce the likelihood” of Israeli strikes like the one that destroyed part of the Jabalya refugee camp, he said.
Ellison, who in 2006 was the first Muslim elected to the US Congress, was among a very small group of Muslim American leaders who met Biden at the White House last week. Ellison said it was clear from his interaction with the president then that Biden cared deeply about preventing civilian casualties.
“It was clear to me he cares a lot. It was clear to me he is using the influence he has to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza,” Ellison said of the meeting.
The meeting, which occurred in the West Wing, included a handful of other leaders, though did not include the heads of the nation’s largest Muslim American groups, many of whom have forcefully denounced Biden’s approach to the conflict.
The meeting was frank and candid, multiple attendees told CNN afterward, and left participants with the impression Biden had taken their messages to heart.
That included a call to demonstrate more empathy for the Palestinians and concern about Biden’s questioning of the civilian death toll provided by the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.
In the meeting, Biden sought to clarify that he wanted to distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinians. He appeared receptive to the group’s concerns, and made clear he was worried about a rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism.
Still, Biden’s standing has taken a deep hit among Muslim Americans, many of whom actively supported him in 2020. Polls have shown a drop-off in support as anger swells over his handling of the Mideast crisis.
In Minnesota on Wednesday, local Muslim leaders said they were leading an effort to withhold support for Biden’s 2024 bid after he failed to endorse a ceasefire.
On Wednesday evening, Biden expressed support for a humanitarian pause to allow for the release of hostages in response to a protester calling for a ceasefire during a closed-door fundraiser.
“I think we need a pause,” Biden said. Security then escorted the protester out, according to reporters accompanying the president.
“I understand the emotion,” Biden said as he continued his remarks. “This is incredibly complicated for the Israelis. It’s incredibly complicated for the Muslim world as well.”
Earlier Wednesday, the president hailed the opening of the Rafah gate to wounded Palestinians and foreign nationals and said the US would continue pressing Israel to adhere to international laws protecting civilians in conflict.
Speaking inside a barn on a hog and corn farm, Biden said it was impossible not to be moved by images of suffering Palestinians.
“Israel has the right to respond and a responsibility to defend its citizens from terror. And it needs to do so in a manner that is consistent with international humanitarian law, that prioritizes protection of civilians,” Biden said. “We’ve all seen the devastating images from Gaza, Palestinian children crying out for lost parents.”
“The loss of innocent life is a tragedy. We grieve for those deaths and continue to grieve for the Israeli children and mothers who brutally slaughtered by Hamas terrorists,” he went on.
Ellison said Muslim American voters should be troubled by the likely alternative to Biden, former President Donald Trump.
“I think Muslim-Americans know that the alternative is Mr. Muslim Ban. The alternative is someone who is openly lying on the Muslim community, multiple times. And I think we know that,” he said.
Still, he acknowledged Biden now has his work cut out for him in convincing the voting bloc to turn out next year.
“I do think we’re going to have to help young people understand that they do need to show up. It’s not just a matter of Trump vs. Biden. One of the alternatives is to not show up at all,” he said.
“Polls are a snapshot in time,” Ellison went on. “And so I don’t suspect they’ll be permanent. But the quicker this conflict is over the better.”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that local Muslim leaders are working in their personal capacity to withhold support from the president’s reelection bid.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
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