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Meet the Palestinian American Doctor Who Walked Out of a Meeting With Joe Biden

Thaer Ahmad handed Biden a letter from an 8-year-old orphaned Palestinian begging him to prevent a Rafah invasion.

This week the White House canceled a planned Ramadan dinner after many Muslim American leaders refused to attend as the Biden administration indicates it plans to continue arming Israel. Instead, Biden held a scaled-back meeting Tuesday with Muslim American community figures. The curtailed meeting was itself met with protests, including from Palestinian American emergency room physician Dr. Thaer Ahmad, who walked out after handing Biden a letter from an 8-year-old orphaned Palestinian girl named Hadeel that read, “I beg you, President Biden, stop them from entering Rafah.” Ahmad tells Democracy Now! that he also told Biden, “Make no mistake about it. It’s going to be a bloodbath,” before walking out. Ahmad is a board member for MedGlobal who recently spent three weeks in Gaza volunteering at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis. He joins us today to discuss the meeting with Biden, in which Ahmad, the only Palestinian American in attendance, was told he and other attendees would be the first people who had actually been in Gaza after October 7 to directly brief the president. “This meeting was not going to be impactful,” says Ahmad, who shares how Biden’s continued backing of Israel, even after its attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy left an American citizen dead, indicates that “nobody is safe” in the Gaza Strip.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Biden is scheduled to speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today for the first time since Israeli forces sparked international outrage by killing seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen. The organization’s founder, Chef José Andrés, has accused Israel of systematically targeting the aid workers, who went to Gaza with a shipload of aid to feed starving Palestinians.

While Biden has said he was outraged by the killings, the White House has indicated it plans to keep arming Israel, even as the death toll in Gaza tops 33,000. The Biden administration is preparing to approve a new $18 billion arms deal for Israel that includes as many as 50 American-made F-15 fighter jets. The U.S. also recently approved sending 1,800 2,000-pound bombs, which can be used to level entire city blocks, as well 500 more 500-pound bombs.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this week, the White House was forced to cancel its planned Ramadan dinner after many Muslim American leaders refused to go to protest Biden’s Gaza policy. Instead of a dinner, Biden held a scaled-back meeting Tuesday with Muslim American community figures, but that, too, was met with protests.

The Palestinian American emergency room physician Thaer Ahmad walked out of the White House meeting. Before leaving, he gave President Biden a letter from an 8-year-old orphaned Palestinian girl named Hadeel that read, “I beg you, President Biden, stop them from entering Rafah.”

Dr. Thaer Ahmad is a board member for MedGlobal, which has an office in Gaza and is working with the World Health Organization. He recently volunteered at Al-Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, in Gaza. Dr. Thaer Ahmad joins us now from Chicago.

Dr. Ahmad, thanks so much for being with us. Can you describe that meeting? I mean, it was hours after we learned of the killing of the seven aid workers in Gaza. Talk about how the meeting — the dinner was canceled, who was at the meeting, and what you did there in meeting President Biden.

DR. THAER AHMAD: You know, this meeting, we first started to hear about it a week prior to its schedule, and it was pitched as a working dinner. It was in lieu of the annual Ramadan iftar that the White House does. But this, given the circumstances and the famine that was in Gaza, they wanted to do a working dinner with the president. Well, the few members of the Muslim American community really pushed back on that, and they said it didn’t feel appropriate to be eating and talking about a famine. It actually came off as quite distasteful. And it was changed to a working meeting with the president, where it would just be direct, intimate conversation with the president of the United States, the vice president and other members of his administration.

And I was the only Palestinian American doctor there, but there was also going to be other medical professionals. And we were told that we were going to be the first people to brief the president about the situation on the ground who had actually been in Gaza after October 7th. And so, you know, leading up to this meeting, we thought this might be an opportunity to really relay the message, even though it was quite surprising to hear that the president had not really spoken with anybody who had been working on the ground directly. His other staff members have, but President Biden himself had not heard from people who had been on the ground.

But as you had mentioned in the lead-up here, there were so many different incidents that took place over the past week, that really, you know, suggested that this meeting was not going to be impactful, and, in fact, it may have been better to just not attend this meeting. And I think the World Central Kitchen thing was the last, was the final event, when you saw seven aid workers get assassinated. I just want to remind people, these were three separate missiles, three different vehicles, as a part of the World Central Kitchen convoy, and they were hit multiple times. I mean, when José Andrés says this is targeted, he’s justified in suggesting that. And it’s also important to know that despite the famine that’s in the north, World Central Kitchen was one of the few organizations that was consistently coordinating with the Israeli military to be able to access the north. And so, this came on the heels of the weapons deals, of the bombs that are being transferred. And so, even if there’s a change in the rhetoric with the Biden administration, the actions of that week really upset all of the people who were attending.

And when we finally sat in the meeting and the president began with his remarks just saying, “We want hear from you guys. This is a listening session,” I ultimately had to excuse myself, after telling him that, you know, Rafah needs to be a red line. Under no circumstance can there be an Israeli invasion into Rafah, given everything that we’ve heard about how the Israelis operate. And anybody that’s trying to convince the president or his staff or the administration that it can be done in a safe manner is not telling you the truth. It cannot be done. You cannot evacuate Palestinians out of Rafah and treat them like sheep, assuming they can be herded around anywhere, and assume everything is going to go fine. I said, “Make no mistake about it. It’s going to be a bloodbath.” And then I got up and handed him that letter from Hadeel, the orphan, and excused myself and walked out of the meeting.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did Biden say?

DR. THAER AHMAD: He just looked at the letter, and he said he understood, because I let him know that, you know, the community that I hail from, the Palestinian diaspora, it’s reeling. We’re grieving. We feel like for six months we’ve been totally ignored. And with all of the decisions that were made over the past couple of weeks alone, it suggested that we still were not going to have a voice, that we still were not going to have a seat at the table and be able to share our concerns, and for those concerns to be met with serious deliberation and to be acknowledged at the very minimum.

And, you know, the U.N. Security Council passed a ceasefire resolution that the U.S. abstained from. Why then do we hear, at the very next moment, the State Department undermining that resolution and saying, “Oh, it’s nonbinding”? Why are we hearing about, you know, all of the fighter jets? And somebody made to say, “Oh, you know, this $18 billion worth of fighter jets and ammunition, it’s years away.” But it’s literally — it’s what it means. It suggests that the United States is going to continue Israel with military aid, and it suggests also that they’re comfortable with how they’re prosecuting the war. And, you know, for every single person that’s interested in this — Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, progressive, human rights defender, humanitarian — everybody is totally against how this war has been prosecuted and the incredible amount of suffering that has taken place, you know, famine in the north, invasion in the south, and infrastructure devastated everywhere. You know, I was in Nasser Hospital. Nasser is just one of the many different hospitals that has been systematically targeted. If we lose all of the hospital infrastructure and healthcare system and healthcare workers, if this invasion happens in Rafah, where are they supposed to go? Where are they supposed to get treatment if there are somehow casualties? Netanyahu suggested that in war — after the World Central Kitchen convoy’s attack, initially he said, “War, sometimes, you know, this is what happens. It’s unfortunate or tragic.” Well, what about the 1.7 million Palestinians in Rafah, if they’re just mistakenly hit? Is that just tragic because they’re going to die in the street, because the healthcare system can’t afford to treat them? And so, these were some of the concerns that we had when we were approaching this meeting, and it’s the concern of the entire international NGO community.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn, Dr. Ahmad, to Wednesday’s press briefing at the White House, where Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, took questions about Tuesday’s meeting.

NANCY CORDES: Was last night the president’s first opportunity to speak face to face with someone who had been on the ground providing aid in Gaza?

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, I can’t speak to the different — the different leaders who have been in this meeting. It is a private meeting. …

ASMA KHALID: If I can also go back to something that was asked earlier —

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah.

ASMA KHALID: — about the president meeting with any aid workers or anybody who’s been inside of Gaza since October 7th? It is a question I’ve also privately posed to —

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah.

ASMA KHALID: — some of your colleagues. And it feels like a yes-or-no question, whether or not he’s actually met with somebody who’s been inside. And the reason I’m asking is, a number of people at the meeting said, to their knowledge, this was the first time the president had actually —

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah.

ASMA KHALID: — spoken to anybody who’s been inside of Gaza since October 7th, and I just wanted to confirm that.

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: Well, here’s what I can tell you. He’s met with community leaders who are, obviously, from the Muslim community, the Arab community, Palestinian community. I would let them speak for themselves on if they’ve been to Gaza.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Dr. Ahmad, your response to what Jean-Pierre said?

DR. THAER AHMAD: Yeah, I mean, it’s clear that she doesn’t want to answer the question, because it was the first time that the president would be in front of somebody. And, you know, they may — it may be that the president is well briefed on the situation, has all of the numbers, has all the facts and figures. And I’m sure that they’re, you know, aware of what’s happening with respect to the Gaza Strip. But the level of detail that you can get with people who have been on the ground, I think, is vital information. And I also know that we’re talking about Israeli counterparts who are probably briefing the entire administration far more regularly than anybody from the Palestinian community, from the Muslim community, from aid organizations that are on the ground. And it’s important for the president to hear some of the concerns of people who were on the ground, who actually interacted with the people that are suffering, who were in different hospitals. A lof of this is important because so much of the rhetoric surrounding some of the healthcare system attacks or the aid convoy attacks or kind of what is taking place in the streets of Palestine and Gaza, so much of that rhetoric is dominated only by the Israelis. You don’t hear about what’s going on from the Palestinian perspective on the ground. They’re not able to share with you that 10,000 families were sheltering in Nasser Hospital prior to it being raided. They can’t tell you that at Shifa Hospital complex, after it was raided and shut down in November, that it was slowly coming up to speed and that people who were sheltering had returned there. The emergency department started to see patients again. You don’t get to hear that aspect of it. And I think that’s truly tragic, considering it’s been six months of this conflict, and this would be the first time that the president had been able to do that.

The other thing I want to mention, too, is, you know, with respect to the World Central Kitchen, the president did say that he was outraged about this. I know he’s going to have a phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu with respect to this. But it’d be important also if the president got to hear from other aid organizations that had also been hit. You know, Medical Aid for Palestine, back in January, they have a compound with International Rescue Committee that was hit. Thankfully, nobody died. But it’s important to figure out why did the Israeli military strike that compound with a missile. Doctors Without Borders, they’ve had two people being killed in an airstrike, as well. It’s important to hear from them. Why did that happen? You know, this is a systematic thing that’s taken place with respect to targeting aid convoys, healthcare workers, healthcare institutions, civilian infrastructure. And so, for people who actually were on the ground, directly affected by this, I think it’s important for the president to hear about this.

And so, you know, the other thing is, there’s something that I think the Biden administration should hear loud and clear. It’s people want to be able to contribute and engage and share their opinions. They want a voice. They want a seat at the table. But it’s got to be meaningful. It’s got to be impactful. People have been talking for six months about what’s important to happen in the Gaza Strip. And that’s a ceasefire, and that’s getting aid in. And there’s been no concrete steps towards that. In fact, it’s been the opposite. It’s only been a blank check given to the Israelis and just diplomatic cover with every single horrific thing that emerges out of the Gaza Strip. And I think that’s why people are [inaudible] the meeting. That’s why people want to engage with the president and the vice president, but are not going to do so until they see something changes with respect to policy and action.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Ahmad, also to say what you mentioned, that there have been as many as 190 aid workers killed before this week’s attack and death of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers. But I want to go now to National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby being questioned Tuesday.

NIALL STANAGE: Is firing a missile at people delivering food and killing them not a violation of international humanitarian law?

JOHN KIRBY: Well, the Israelis have already admitted that this was a mistake that they made. They’re doing an investigation. They’ll get to the bottom of this. Let’s not get ahead of that. … The State Department has a process in place. And to date, as you and I are speaking, they have not found any incidents where the Israelis have violated international humanitarian law.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Dr. Ahmad, that Israel has not violated international humanitarian law, your response?

DR. THAER AHMAD: Yeah, I mean, I would say if you were to ask John Kirby if any civilian or innocent person has died in this war, I guarantee you he’d probably give you a very vague answer and say, “We have not found anything to suggest that in any of our investigations.” I mean, he is totally — it’s totally ridiculous and outrageous for that to be the response, especially this is in the setting of the World Central Kitchen tragedy of seven people being killed, this is the sort of response that you get. And I think, for me, that’s part of the problem here, is the messaging that we’re hearing, especially from somebody like John Kirby. It’s something that is totally unacceptable.

We are hearing about violation after violation. I’m not a lawyer, but it’s kind of strange to hear that the entire community of people who have been looking at international humanitarian law, all of the experts, the eyewitnesses, are suggesting that there is some serious violations taking place here, and it’s happening multiple times over the course of six months, that, in fact, it starts to suggest that there’s a pattern of behavior in place here, and then, instead, you get a response saying, “Be patient. Watch out. We’ve got to look into investigation. Everything we’ve seen so far has suggested that there isn’t anything there.” I mean, there’s 33,000 dead Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. How did that happen? I mean, John Kirby wouldn’t be able to answer that question, based on the tone that he’s taken.

And I think that’s, again, highlighting what we’re talking about when we say it seems like this sort of support, this diplomatic cover for the Biden administration is unwavering. Even though the rhetoric or tone may change here and there with respect to acknowledging the human suffering that’s taking place and the humanitarian catastrophe, all of these other comments sort of support the broader theme of what’s taking place in Gaza over the last six months. And it’s that the United States is fully supporting what the Israeli military is doing. And so, what I would say is, when President Biden has that call with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I would say that it’s important for him to draw a red line, for him to make a demand and to suggest that there are consequences if things don’t change with respect to what’s happening in the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: Doctor, I wanted to go to the founder of the World Central Kitchen, the world-renowned Chef José Andrés, who accused Israel of systematically targeting the seven aid workers who were killed Monday night in that series of drone strikes in Gaza. Chef Andrés spoke to Reuters Wednesday.

JOSÉ ANDRÉS: At the end, it’s what we know, what everybody knows, that seven team members between the specialty security people we have — three British individuals and three international crew, plus one Palestinian — that they were targeted systematically, car by car. They attacked the first car. We are still trying to get all the information on what happened on the first car. We have a feeling they were able to escape safely, because it was an armored vehicle. This was only the third day we had armored vehicles, within six months trying to bring them in. But the first armored vehicle was hit. They were able to, it seems, escape. We still don’t know all the details on the events in terms of people injured or people even dead. They were able to move in the second one. Again, this one was hit. They were able to move in the third one. In the process, we know, they were trying to call. But in the chaos of the moment, whatever happened, they — to try to be telling IDF that — why are they doing that? They were targeting us, in a deconfliction zone, in an area controlled by IDF, them knowing that it was our teams moving on that route with two armored — with three cars. And then they hit the third one, and then we saw the consequences of that continuous targeting attack: seven people dead. But they are seven on top of at least of more than another 190 humanitarian workers that they’ve been killed over the last six months.

JEFF MASON: Israel and the United States have said that the attacks were not deliberate. Do you accept that?

JOSÉ ANDRÉS: Well, totally, initially, I would say, categorically, no. … Even if we were not in coordination with the IDF, not democratic country and not military can be targeting civilians and humanitarians, especially when the technology today allows you to know things in ways not too long ago was not possible. Those drones have eyes on everything that moves in Gaza. I’ve been there. This is drones nonstop flying above you. It’s nothing that moves that IDF doesn’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Clearly, Dr. Ahmad, the establishment consensus has now broken. I’ve seen Democratic senator after senator starting to question U.S. military aid to Israel. President Biden knows Chef José Andrés. Now, the seven people who were killed — the three British nationals, the Polish national, the Canadian-American national — we have not heard the Canadian prime minister or the president name that person — the Australian — these are six international aid workers, plus a Palestinian aid worker. Clearly, that’s what’s changing that conversation, because, as you pointed out, almost 200 aid workers have been killed in the last months. You’re planning to go back to Gaza? You are Palestinian American. Are you concerned you, too, like so many of your colleagues, could be targeted, as a doctor, as a nurse, as a medical aid worker in Gaza?

DR. THAER AHMAD: I mean, of course. That’s always a primary concern. And I think it’s because we have the same realization that most other agencies and organizations and relief workers have, and that’s there’s no place that’s safe in the Gaza Strip. Again, World Central Kitchen, when José Andrés is saying that route was deconflicted, he’s saying that the coordinates and the movement were shared in real time with the Israeli military. And this is an organization that has an excellent relationship with the IDF. And the fact that their convoy was hit three separate times despite them trying to reach out, nobody is safe. I mean, you know, there’s about 200 aid workers that have been killed, but also 400 healthcare workers. You know, this is — journalists, over a hundred journalists have been killed in this process. There is nobody that’s safe.

And I think one comment that I want to make that, really, that Chef José had really mentioned is “anything that moves.” And that’s such an important thing for people to recognize in the Gaza Strip, there are areas where there is total control by the Israeli military, and if there’s any sort of movement, those people come under fire and are killed. And there is the footage just from last week of two Palestinians on the beach waving the white flag. We can clearly see that they’re unarmed, and them being killed and then buried with a bulldozer on the beach in Gaza. I mean, that’s the kind of landscape that you’re talking about. There’s so many different areas in the Gaza Strip where you cannot walk around — does not matter, man, woman or child — and you are under the threat of attack.

And so, it’s everybody. It’s all parts of society — aid workers, healthcare workers. So it’s important for people to recognize and understand the counternarrative here to anything that would suggest that there are armed people or militants that are being targeted. Every single person in the Gaza Strip is not safe. And if they’re moving at the wrong place at the wrong time, they will be killed. There’s no other conclusion or outcome of that scenario.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Thaer Ahmad, we want to thank you for being with us, emergency room physician who spent three weeks in Gaza volunteering at Al-Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, board member for MedGlobal, which has an office in Gaza, is working with the World Health Organization. He walked out of a White House meeting with President Biden this week.

Next up, we speak with a prominent Israeli professor about how Israel put Gaza on the road to famine. Back in 20 seconds.