In Congress, Palestinians have few allies and many enemies. Representative Brian Mast, a Republican from Florida, is among the latter. On Wednesday, the U.S. Army veteran cast doubt on the very notion of a Palestinian civilian. “I would encourage the other side to not so lightly throw around the idea of innocent Palestinian civilians, as is frequently said,” he announced on the floor of the House. “I don’t think we would so lightly throw around the term ‘innocent Nazi civilians’ during World War II. It is not a far stretch to say there are very few innocent Palestinian civilians.” Mast wore an Israeli military uniform to the Capitol earlier this month, so his views are disturbing but not quite a surprise.
As an extremist, Mast has company within his own party. Since the war began on October 7, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the U.S. should place no limit on the number of civilian casualties that Israel metes out. Though he also said that Israel should “be smart” and “try to limit civilian casualties the best we can,” he’d previously told Fox that Israel should “level” Gaza. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that Israel “must respond DISPROPORTIONATELY to this & to any futures attacks from any enemy.” Other Republican politicians resort to familiar fear-mongering. Florida governor Ron DeSantis said the U.S. should not accept Palestinian refugees because they “are all antisemitic,” the Associated Press reported. On Truth Social, Donald Trump warned that Hamas is somehow “pouring” across the southern border.
Islamophobia is an old American prejudice, and it has roared into new life since the October 7 massacre by Hamas in Israel. The conflation of all Palestinians with Hamas militants only reinforces Israel’s policy of collective punishment and places American Arabs and Muslims in danger. Republicans like Mast sound more and more eliminationist as most Democrats wring their hands. A few progressives have called for a true ceasefire, but others, including President Joe Biden, prefer a limited “humanitarian pause” as they stress their support for Israel. Though the White House announced that a new anti-Islamophobia initiative is in the works, some Muslim American leaders are reportedly skeptical, and with reason. Mast’s comments didn’t arrive from the void.
This domestic drama unfolds as civilian casualties mount in Gaza. This week alone, Israel has repeatedly bombed the Jabalia refugee camp, ostensibly to attack Hamas commanders, killing at least 50 people and injuring more than 150 according to health officials in Gaza. “It’s a massacre,” a witness told Reuters, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights tweeted that the airstrikes may be war crimes. In Gaza alone the death toll has passed 9,000, thousands of them children. Also this week, Amnesty International said it had evidence that Israel used white phosphorus in southern Lebanon, and injured civilians in an incident that Amnesty said should be investigated as a war crime.
In the West Bank, which is not controlled by Hamas, Israeli settlers have violently attacked Palestinians and forced them out of villages. Israeli authorities and armed settlers have killed 120 in clashes since October 7, according to U.N. officials. The U.N. Secretary-General has called for a ceasefire, as have some other nations. The U.S., though, is reluctant to criticize Israel’s far-right government, even as it kills massive numbers of Palestinian civilians. Mast’s comments are symptomatic of a Republican party gone off the brink, and more broadly, of a Congress unwilling to reconsider its unshakeable support for Israel.
This state of affairs can’t last forever. Israel’s assault on Gaza, along with unchecked settler violence in the West Bank, shames the state and its allies, including the U.S. At home, Republican bloodthirst casts a harsh light on congressional inaction to stop the mass killing of civilians. Congress seems to only prioritize giving Israel billions of dollars in aid without any sort of strings attached. Most Democrats won’t acknowledge the reality in front of them as their colleagues across the aisle cry out for hate and vengeance. It is not enough for Democrats to condemn Mast, as Senator Brian Schatz did on Wednesday. Though Schatz was right to call Mast’s comments “reckless” and “racist,” Democrats must confront their own internal rot.
The Hamas butchery of October 7 sickened the world. So should Israel’s reaction. Entire families are gone in Gaza as settlers in the West Bank embark upon ethnic cleansing. Democrats may not share Mast’s extremism and they might not believe, as Graham does, that Israel should level Gaza. But their quietude in the face of horror deprives them of the moral edge. If they truly believe that Mast is wrong, and that innocent Palestinian civilians exist, they can do more than call for a limited humanitarian pause. America’s traditional complicity in Palestinian death is neither moral nor necessary; other paths exist. Take one, and call for a ceasefire. Doing so may save lives, and further marginalize radicals like Mast. A moral crisis like this demands courage, and new thinking. The alternative is bloody.