Israel-Gaza war prompts Palestinian Americans to run for office

Seeing the lack of response or even acknowledgement of the plight of Gazans has pushed many 'out of the liberal zone'

The roughly 175,000 Palestinian Americans have watched with growing anger as the US government continues to back Israel amid the war. Getty Images / AFP
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For Leila Hazou, seven months of war in Gaza that has drawn little more than silence from the Democratic Party with which she once identified so closely has prompted her to take an extraordinary step: running for political office.

A small business owner in Pennsylvania whose family fled Jerusalem during the Nakba, Ms Hazou is running for a seat in the US Senate as a member of the Green Party.

“Obviously we are not going to vote for [Democratic politicians], but what else can we do – can we make them lose?” she tells The National.

“Maybe a bunch of us should run and take a bunch of the vote away. Maybe we make them realise that they don’t have our vote just because they are the only option.”

Ms Hazou, who says she will officially launch her campaign in the next week or so, is furious that the party has done virtually nothing as the death toll in Gaza continues to rise.

“As the horror became so evident this time in this conflict, to see [the Democratic Party] still not waver, even my Democrat friends, seeing them not really care at all …” she says, adding many in the part are “acting just like the Republicans”.

“Seeing the lack of response and urgency and even acknowledgement over this issue pushed me out of the liberal zone.”

And she is not alone.

The roughly 175,000 Palestinian Americans have watched with growing anger as the US government continues to back Israel amid the war.

Some have seen no other recourse than to try to change US policy from the inside.

John Dabeet, a university professor and Palestinian immigrant, in March announced plans to run for a seat in the Iowa state Senate as a Democrat.

Born in Jerusalem and raised in Ramallah, Mr Dabeet is the president of the US Palestinian Council, a non-profit organisation aiming to represent, educate and advocate on issues of concern to the community.

“I’ve been calling for Palestinian Americans to get involved and take their seat at the table for many years," he tells The National.

"That involvement can take different format – in a chamber of a local community, a school board or city council.

“We’ve also been asking our Palestinian-American communities to get involved with political parties, whether Democrats or Republicans.

"You will never change anything while you are screaming outside. The change happens from the inside.”

A resident of Muscatine, Iowa, who has served on a local school board for several years, Mr Dabeet is going up against the incumbent member of the Republican Party.

“The main motivator for me is that we need to have a seat at the table,” Mr Dabeet says.

He says that over the past four to five years, he has started to see more Palestinians running for office at various levels.

“When you’re around the table, you’re sharing the narrative with those who maybe did not hear that story before, so that’s the important thing about being involved," he says.

"In recent years, that involvement became obvious to us."

Justin Amash, the son of Palestinian and Syrian immigrants, is a libertarian and former Republican congressman. In 2019, he sided with Democrats to vote to impeach then-president Donald Trump.

Mr Amash watched with trepidation from his home in Michigan in the early weeks of the Israel-Gaza war, fearing for family members trapped in the enclave.

Soon, the news he hoped he would never receive arrived: several family members sheltering in a church had been killed in Gaza in an Israeli air strike.

“My Orthodox Christian relatives have nothing to do with terrorism,” Mr Amash said, referring to Hamas. "But they haven’t been spared from death, pain and grief."

In February, he announced his candidacy for the US Senate, running as an independent.

The move by Palestinian Americans into politics – whether at the local, state or national level – in many respects mirrors the 2022 midterm election cycle, when Arab and Muslim Americans sought and won political office in record numbers.

Many of those candidates and their communities were fuelled by Mr Trump's so-called Muslim ban that barred citizens of several Islamic countries from entering the US.

Mr Trump has vowed that, if he wins the November presidential election, he will reinstate the ban “on day one”.

But the vast expanse of competing interests and events shaping America’s wider election landscape means that for many politicians and the US electorate, the war in Gaza is not a major campaign issue.

While many politicians up for election this year are trying to avoid publicly supporting either side in the Gaza war for fear of losing votes, Mr Dabeet says that America’s political class is way behind the public mood.

“Look at the statistics. For example, among Democrats, 70 per cent are pushing for an immediate ceasefire,” he says.

But Ms Hazou knows that the battle to defeat well-funded, established politicians and their parties is a tall order.

“I can’t speak for all Arab Americans, but I don’t think either party ever really represents us, so we need to start making third-party options more viable,” she says.

“This will take time, but we need to start somewhere.”

She says that, as a Palestinian American, she cannot let the sheer number of deaths in Gaza be in vain.

“I think many of us are willing to make a sacrifice of the 'what if' scenarios to not only send a message, but hopefully create a path for real change,” Ms Hazou says.

“Both parties need to consider us and many other Americans that feel the same way on this issue.”

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Updated: May 26, 2024, 7:18 PM