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USAID’s Samantha Power confronted by staff over Biden’s Gaza policy

USAID’s Samantha Power confronted by staff over Biden’s Gaza policy
USAID’s Samantha Power confronted by staff over Biden’s Gaza policy

Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development and a world-renowned scholar on genocide, was pointedly challenged by current and former USAID employees who during a public event Tuesday questioned her stance on the war in Gaza and complicity in the divisive U.S. policy.

“You wrote a book on genocide and you’re still working for the administration: You should resign and speak out,” said Agnieszka Sykes, a global health specialist who told The Washington Post she left her job at USAID late last week.

Sykes interrupted a speech Power was giving in Washington on climate change and natural disasters to invoke Power’s book “A Problem from Hell.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning work examines and condemns U.S. inaction on various atrocities, from Armenia to Rwanda, spanning several presidential administrations.

Like other members of President Biden’s National Security Council, Power oversees an agency deeply divided about Washington’s military support for Israel’s war in Gaza and refusal to demand a cease-fire.

But she is unique in being publicly confronted by her own workforce over the administration’s policy — a reflection of what USAID officials say is her long body of work on this subject and her organization’s responsibility to respond to distressed Gazans’ suffering from a lack of food, water and medicine amid Israel’s devastating military bombardment

After Sykes’s interruption, Power thanked her for her comments and offered a response later in the program when she acknowledged the situation in Gaza was “devastating,” and stated that “more than 25,000 civilians have been killed,” a figure not always used by the U.S. government because Gaza’s health ministry does not distinguish between Hamas fighters and Palestinian civilians. (Some U.S. officials, though, have said the ministry likely undercounts the number of casualties.)

“Not enough resources are getting in,” Power said, underscoring the urgent need to provide assistance to the more than 1.8 million Gazans who have been displaced. She noted that U.S. negotiators were seeking to broker a humanitarian pause that would allow more aid to move into the Palestinian enclave in exchange for Hamas’s release of hostages.

At the same time, Power emphasized the “horror” of the Hamas cross-border attack Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people in Israel and resulted in more than 240 being taken hostage. “Human life is sacred,” she said.

Power has long said the United States bears a unique responsibility to prevent mass atrocities and has admonished U.S. dithering in the face of large-scale violence, such as the Clinton administration’s handling of the genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority. “Silence in the face of atrocity is not neutrality; silence in the face of atrocity is acquiescence,” she is often quoted as saying.

During the conversation on Tuesday, a USAID employee, Hannah Funk, questioned whether the United States was squandering its moral authority on the world stage by rushing arms and equipment into Israel during its military campaign.

“The U.S.-funded genocide in Gaza has really left us unable to be moral leaders on climate change and all the other pressing development and humanitarian issues those of us who work at USAID care so much about,” Funk told Power during the question-and-answer session. “How are you leading us to reckon with and overcome this hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy?”

The United States and Israel reject the term genocide to describe the killing of Palestinians in Gaza — a contention that is at the center of proceedings before the International Court of Justice brought by South Africa. The court ordered Israel to do more to prevent the killing of civilians in Gaza but did not call for a cease-fire.

In her response to Funk at the event, Power did not address genocide accusations but offered an implicit defense of Israel’s military campaign, saying “it is very important that what happened on Oct. 7 never happen again.”

“When Hamas leadership is at large, you know, those same kinds of attacks, the same kind of hostage-taking, the same kind of sexual assault, that can happen again,” she said.

She also spoke about the distinctions between the jobs of those in government and outside activists, both roles that Power has played in her career.

“The only thing harder I found in my life is not having the opportunity to be in those debates and to be on the sideline watching things that one would wish to see happen … differently,” she said.

The interaction marks the first clash between Power and current and former USAID employees at a public event, but she has encountered dissent in other ways. In November, hundreds of USAID employees endorsed a letter calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. Liberal activists at MoveOn are circulating a petition calling on her to resign or return her Pulitzer Prize, considered the preeminent recognition of influential journalism and other published works.

She also came under criticism for not publicly disclosing the killing of a USAID contractor who died after a suspected Israeli strike in Gaza in November. Power has said that in all of her high-level discussions about the conflict, she has made protection of aid workers a priority.

“There is not a single call that President Biden makes or engagement that anybody in the Biden administration does that doesn’t put the importance of civilian protection and international humanitarian law at the at the top of the conversation,” she said during the Tuesday forum.

Sykes, when asked about Power’s response to her public challenge on Tuesday, said she was disappointed Power’s chronology of the conflict began Oct. 7 without touching on the “past 75 years of Palestinians being violently forced off their ancestral land.”

“I am a lifelong Democrat but this administration’s vetoing of a cease-fire and enabling of genocide does not bode well for the Democratic Party,” she said in an interview.

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