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Tension over Israel-Hamas war simmers inside the Democratic Party


HANOVER, N.H. — Rep. Dean Phillips is addressing a number of issues in his uphill, upstart campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. But none are stirring passions on the trail like the Israel-Hamas war.

Public polling shows that Israel divides the Democratic Party. It prompted a protest at the Democratic National Committee headquarters this week that ended with the Capitol Police breaking up the demonstration. Members of Democrats’ House caucus have divided and aired critical statements against each other.

And in the uncontrolled environment of the New Hampshire campaign trail, where voters can come and go and air questions as they please, it keeps coming up with Phillips.

As the Minnesota congressman was walking out of Lou’s Bakery near Dartmouth College, an employee stopped him to ask for his thoughts on the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I believe there desperately needs to be a Palestinian state created that is safe and secure in its opportunity,” Phillips said. “Hamas has got to be eliminated. The Palestinian Authority has got to be eliminated.”

And, Phillips added, “Israelis have to choose a new government, they got to end the settlements, we have got to end this nonsense.”

“I care deeply about both sides. Deeply. Plain and simple,” Phillips continued. “And the fact that people are taking only one side or the other right now is exactly the problem, including a conversation that I just had with someone over there. One side only. And that’s the problem. I think both deserve safety and security, and it is sickening what’s going on.”

The employee told him, “I think that is a very good view — I personally am very pro-Palestinian.” After Phillips asked if she could be “pro-both,” she responded expressing that she is more for a pro-Palestinian government.

Phillips asked her if she’s for Hamas, to which she said, “Moreso, yes.”

“That hard — that’s — I just gotta be forthright, that’s really hard for me to hear,” Phillips said. “Because what they did, and you should watch the films of what they did to people, my goodness,” he continued, referring to videos of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.

Earlier at that same restaurant, he sat next to a Dartmouth grad student who told him she was against colonization and Zionism. During a heated discussion, she said, “Regardless of my opinion of the Holocaust, I still would not support a colony.”

Phillips responded, “If you want to solve this, please have empathy for both.” And as he walked away from the conversation, he said, “I am speaking for everybody, Palestinian kids and Israeli kids.”

This is not the first time Phillips, who is Jewish, has come face to face with the tension over Israel in the Democratic Party.

During his first official town hall in New Hampshire at the beginning of November, a young voter asked Phillips why he had not called for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Phillips responded by first asking her how she felt about Israelis who were killed. Then he told her he is disgusted by the loss of all innocent lives.

He attempted to explain his view on the need to eradicate Hamas. He talked about his Jewish faith and how he wants to work with his “Palestinian sister,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, on this issue.

At one point, the young voter said, “call for a cease-fire.” Phillips then said, “I’m calling for the elimination of a terrorist organization that will…”

He didn’t finish his sentence. The voter interrupted him, screaming, “At the expense of children’s lives!”

The voter who asked the question ended up cursing and walking out of the room. At least three more people walked out of the room in protest after that exchange.

In Washington, a group of two dozen House Democrats are now calling for a cease-fire. The group of Democrats wrote a letter to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to support a cease-fire in Gaza.

The tension was also evident on Wednesday night, when U.S. Capitol Police members and a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators calling for cease-fire converged outside the DNC building near the Capitol.

The Capitol Police posted on the social media site X that people were “are illegally and violently protesting.”

IfNotNow, a group that describes itself as “American Jews organizing our community to end U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system,” posted on X, saying, “We are linking arms, threatening no one, and begging our politicians to support an end to the killing and the suffering in Gaza. Begging, peacefully, for a ceasefire.”

Some of the broader tension on the issue has also sparked hate directed at the party and its members. On Wednesday, the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s Belknap County office was vandalized with antisemitic and white supremacist symbols, including a swastika.

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley wrote in a statement, “We stand in unwavering solidarity with the Jewish community and all those targeted by these abhorrent acts. We will not be intimidated or deterred in our fight against bigotry. We call on every citizen to join us to ensure that New Hampshire remains a place where hate finds no harbor.”

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.