Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his staffers Thursday night that he knew many were shaken professionally and personally by the Israel-Hamas war — a message he sent amid unhappiness among some Muslim and Arab employees over how the U.S. is approaching the crisis.
Blinken’s note to staff wasn’t a response to reports of the frustrations, a person familiar with the issue said. He had planned to write to department employees about the Middle East crisis but wanted to wait until he returned from a visit to the region, said the person, who was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.
Blinken’s note described his trip, which was repeatedly extended and saw him visit Israel and several Arab countries, some of them multiple times. The secretary applauded staffers for moving quickly to deal with logistics and other aspects of the trip and overall crisis.
“I know that, for many of you, this time has not only been challenging professionally, but personally,” he added. “Some of our colleagues in the region, especially among our locally employed staff, have been directly affected by the violence, including by losing loved ones and friends.”
He went on to note that even in the United States, there have been “ripples of fear and bigotry” against Arab Americans, Muslims and Jews.
He insisted, however, that the administration’s approach to the crisis has been balanced.
“President [Joe] Biden has made clear from the beginning of the crisis — as I underscored across the region — that while we fully support Israel’s right to defend itself, how it does so matters. That means acting in a way that respects the rule of law and international humanitarian standards, and taking every possible precaution to protect civilian life,” he wrote.
The Biden administration’s initial reaction to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel was to offer unqualified support to the Israelis, insisting they had the right to defend themselves against the militant group.
That jarred many State Department employees who worried it gave Israel a green light to take measures that would unfairly punish ordinary Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is based. Due to an Israeli siege, water, electricity and fuel are in short supply now in the territory.
The Biden administration’s approach has especially upset Muslim and Arab staffers — but not only them — who felt the language was not nuanced and deaf to longstanding Palestinian concerns. Some worried it would also lead to bad policy outcomes and more long-term violence in the Middle East.
In more recent days, Biden, Blinken and others have adjusted their language. They are more likely now to urge Israel to avoid hurting civilians and to more openly acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinians. They also have promised to send millions in aid to Palestinians in Gaza.
Amid the tumult, some Arab and Muslim staffers have considered quitting, but they also weigh the possibility that they might be able to do more good if they stay at the department.
That keeps some people going, one State Department employee said. “But when you’re talked over or ignored enough times, it can cause folks to break.”
At least one department employee has quit over the Biden administration’s approach to the conflict.
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