Resignation of US State Department official highlights rifts over Gaza war

Annelle Sheline warns support for Israel has cost Washington its credibility as an advocate for human rights

People protest against the Gaza war in a demonstration outside the White House gates. AFP
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A US State Department official’s decision to resign in protest against Israel’s war on Gaza has emphasised growing rifts in Washington over the Biden administration's stance on the conflict.

Annelle Sheline announced on Wednesday she would step down from her role as foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour. In an article for CNN, she wrote that she was "unable to serve an administration that enables such atrocities".

She said her focus had been on promoting human rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

"As a representative of a government that is directly enabling what the International Court of Justice has said could plausibly be a genocide in Gaza, such work has become almost impossible," she wrote.

"Whatever credibility the United States had as an advocate for human rights has almost entirely vanished since the war began."

Ms Sheline is the latest official to resign from the State Department. Josh Paul, a director in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, stepped down in October last year, while Department of Education official Tariq Habash, a Palestinian American, resigned in January.

She said the government of President Joe Biden was shifting its Gaza policy slowly, but that its actions so far had caused too much damage. The US previously faced criticism for vetoing UN Security Council resolutions on the conflict, with the country this week abstaining from a vote on a resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire in the enclave.

Ms Sheline said plans for the US military to build a pier help aid enter Gaza from the sea were a "PR stunt".

"I can only hope that things are starting to change. Unfortunately, I don't yet see the US actually using its leverage as far as ending or withdrawing support for Israeli military operations, turning off the tap of weapons," she told AFP.

Though not originally intending to resign publicly, when she informed her colleagues that she would be resigning, she said that they had encouraged her to "please speak out, please speak for us".

"Many people are not in a position where they feel they could resign or they are trying to do what they can on the inside," she told Democracy Now! on Thursday.

There is a broad diversity of views inside the State Department about our policy with respect to Gaza, just as there's a broad diversity ... of views and opinions throughout American society about this issue and others," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Wednesday.

He emphasised that the department aims to "make sure that people have an opportunity to make their views known" and said that "having our decisions challenged helps us make better ones in the future".

"I wouldn't say that I've seen a marked change in employee opinion over time," he added. "But it is true that there have been a diversity of views for some time over our policy with respect to Israel."

Ms Sheline said that despite having voiced concern through dissent cables and in public forums, "the leadership is not listening".

"This administration came in pledging to re-establish American moral leadership, re-engage with the international community, uphold the law and the so-called rules-based international order," she told Democracy Now!

"It's become clear that this administration is not, in fact, conducting or carrying out any of those pledges."

Speaking to The National on Thursday, Mr Paul, who resigned from the State Department in October, said "the Biden administration is very set on its path right now", and that while resignations add pressure and draw attention to the issue, "it will still take an awful lot to actually shift" policy.

"I'm in awe of Annelle's courage," he added. "It says something significant.

"When you're talking about someone who is leaving the bureau of human rights as an expression that they no longer want to be a part of that process, I think that is a real warning sign for the direction this country is going."

The decision to abstain from the vote on the UN resolution, which was adopted by the council, was a response to domestic pressure over the Gaza war and calls from allies to compromise, said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute and a Middle East aide at the White House under former president George W Bush.

A resolution "is a signal, but it doesn't in any tangible way impact Israel's ability to prosecute the conflict", Mr Singh told AFP. Arms restrictions imposed by the US would "come at a much higher cost" strategically and politically, he added.

Israel has waged a relentless military campaign in Gaza in response to an attack by Hamas on October 7 that killed about 1,200 people. More than 32,400 Palestinians have been killed in the enclave since then, Gaza's health authorities said.

The US has repeatedly warned Israel not to attack the southern city of Rafah, where more than 1.4 million Palestinians have taken shelter. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week vowed to press ahead, after a direct appeal from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

US officials say they aim to present Israeli officials with alternatives to an attack on Rafah.

Sara Ruthven contributed to this report from Washington

Updated: March 28, 2024, 5:42 PM