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President Joe Biden steps off of Marine One as he arrives at Delaware Air National Guard Base in New Castle, Del., Oct. 27, 2023.Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press

In the first days after Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacres and abductions of Israelis, U.S. President Joe Biden made little reference to Palestinians in his forceful backing of Israel’s right to self-defence. Then, he pushed for humanitarian aid to reach the besieged Gaza Strip. This past week, his administration floated a “humanitarian pause” in Israel’s bombardment of the enclave.

The White House’s shifts in policy have followed increasingly dire conditions in Gaza, where Israel has cut off supplies of food, water, electricity and fuel to 2.3 million people and reduced city blocks to rubble with air strikes.

The changes have also reflected mounting dissent within Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party, as Muslim and Arab-American legislators, left-wing activists and younger voters call for the U.S. government to demand a ceasefire and put pressure on Israel to lift its siege.

But even as Mr. Biden has pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protect Palestinian civilians, he has signalled that his support for Israel’s war effort remains steadfast. He has rushed ammunition to the country and is asking Congress to authorize tens of billions more in military aid. His administration argues that a ceasefire would only help Hamas.

“I’m sure innocents have been killed,” the President acknowledged this week, “and it’s the price of waging a war.”

As Israel expands its ground invasion and the U.S. girds for a close presidential election in a year’s time, Mr. Biden’s foreign policy-making and political acumen face one of their most difficult tests.

Wa’el Alzayat, the head of Emgage, a Muslim-American organization that runs voter turnout drives, said Muslim and Arab-American communities in a handful of swing states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia – could make the difference in a tight election. While they are highly unlikely to vote for the Republicans, who are even more staunchly pro-Israel, he fears they could cost Mr. Biden re-election by not voting at all.

“Our message to the administration is to take seriously the electoral impact because of the consequences it would have for America’s democracy,” he said. “It would be such a shame to enable someone such as Donald Trump to benefit from this crisis.”

Mr. Trump has promised, if he returns to office, to institute an expanded version of his previous ban on travellers from some Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Mr. Alzayat, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on Middle East policy, said Mr. Biden’s efforts to get humanitarian aid into Gaza are “useless if we have no ceasefire. Our job should not be just to feed people who are about to die.”

Over the last week, fewer than 100 aid trucks have entered Gaza through Egypt’s Rafah crossing after inspections by Israel, a far cry from the 500 trucks a day that went into the territory before the war. Israel has vowed not to let any supplies through its own crossings with Gaza until Hamas releases the 240 hostages it is holding in the enclave.

The result, United Nations officials say, is that Gazans will soon be killed by thirst and famine in addition to dying in the bombings.

Muhammad Smiry, who has been documenting conditions in Gaza on social media, wrote in a message to The Globe this week: “Biden won’t help Gaza. He only helps Israel.”

Polling has shown a majority of Americans back Israel, but with significant splits based on age and political orientation. A Marist poll this month found that 65 per cent of all respondents believe the U.S. should support Israel, but that number dropped to 48 per cent among Millennials and Generation Z.

A Gallup survey earlier this year found that Democratic voters were more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to the Israelis by a margin of 49 to 38 per cent, the first time the pollster had registered Palestinians ahead on that question. Gallup also showed an 11-point drop in Mr. Biden’s approval rating among Democrats since the war began.

Among elected officials, support for Israel has remained steadfast, with a House of Representatives resolution on the subject passing by a margin of 412 to 10.

At the federal level, most of the opposition to Mr. Biden’s policies has come from the left: of those who voted against the resolution, six are members of the progressive “Squad.” Raucous protests by Jewish Voice for Peace have taken over the rotunda of a Capitol Hill office building, shut down New York’s Grand Central Terminal at rush hour and picketed the home of Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer.

The divisions have been more pronounced in Michigan, a key swing state with a Muslim population of 240,000 out of 10.5-million residents. Mr. Biden won the state by about three percentage points in 2020.

Samantha Steckloff, a Jewish member of the state legislature, backed a motion affirming Israel’s “right to self-defence” in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s attack. But she told reporters that she felt the motion was no longer appropriate once it became clear that Israel’s self-defence entailed cutting off all supplies to Gaza.

Ms. Steckloff, who knew a family killed by Hamas, said she and the lower chamber’s other Jewish member and two Muslim members have been trying to support people from both faith communities since Oct. 7. “There are four of us that are getting calls from scared parents and children, afraid to send their kids to school,” the Detroit Free Press quoted her as saying.

Alabas Farhat, a Democrat who represents Dearborn, the Detroit suburb with a large Arab-American population, has pushed for help for constituents trapped in Gaza. “The glaring indifference the Biden administration has shown to the suffering of my people only guarantees more innocent lives will be lost in Gaza,” he tweeted.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Moss, a Jewish Democratic state senator, fired back on Twitter at Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American member of Congress from Detroit, for blaming Israel in the bombing of a Gaza hospital when U.S. intelligence indicated the explosion was likely caused by a Palestinian rocket.

“Incendiary & irresponsible statements from our member of Congress,” Mr. Moss wrote, “offers nothing to assist Israeli hostages in unknown conditions & Palestinian civilians in need of humanitarian aid.”

Ned Lazarus, an international affairs professor at George Washington University, said Mr. Biden appears to have calculated that by supporting Israel fully, he can also help influence the course of the war.

For instance, the President has reportedly pushed Mr. Netanyahu to delay a full ground invasion to give the U.S. more time to try to get Hamas’s hostages released and work to stop the conflict from spreading, such as by moving American forces to the region as a deterrent.

“There’s a strategic logic and it was something that he was able to execute because I think it reflects his authentic feelings. His choices gave him a much more powerful hand,” said Prof. Lazarus, a former Middle East director for Seeds of Peace, a non-profit conflict resolution group.

This position, however, has “lessened Biden’s legitimacy with Arab parties,” he said, and the outcome, like that of the war, is unpredictable. “It’s a very difficult situation where it’s impossible to play both ends at the same time.”

With files from Mark Mackinnon.

Editor’s note: Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Muslim and Arab-American communities are putting pressure on U.S. President Joe Biden.

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