Powerful: Epic Tragedy in Gaza: “Why I’m resigning from the State Department”

Editor’s Note: Annelle Sheline, PhD, served for a year as a foreign affairs officer at the Office of Near Eastern Affairs in the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.CNN — 

Since Hamas’ attack on October 7, Israel has used American bombs in its war in Gaza, which has killed more than 32,000 people — 13,000 of them children — with countless others buried under the rubble, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. Israel is credibly accused of starving the 2 million people who remain, according to the UN special rapporteur on the right to food; a group of charity leaders warns that without adequate aid, hundreds of thousands more will soon likely join the dead.

Annelle Sheline

Annelle Sheline Courtesy Annelle Sheline

Yet Israel is still planning to invade Rafah, where the majority of people in Gaza have fled; UN officials have described the carnage that is expected to ensue as “beyond imagination.” In the West Bank, armed settlers and Israeli soldiers have killed Palestinians, including US citizens. These actions, which experts on genocide have testified meet the crime of genocide, are conducted with the diplomatic and military support of the US government.

For the past year, I worked for the office devoted to promoting human rights in the Middle East. I believe strongly in the mission and in the important work of that office. However, as a representative of a government that is directly enabling what the International Court of Justice has said could plausibly be a genocide in Gaza, such work has become almost impossible. Unable to serve an administration that enables such atrocities, I have decided to resign from my position at the Department of State.

Whatever credibility the United States had as an advocate for human rights has almost entirely vanished since the war began. Members of civil society have refused to respond to my efforts to contact them. Our office seeks to support journalists in the Middle East; yet when asked by NGOs if the US can help when Palestinian journalists are detained or killed in Gaza, I was disappointed that my government didn’t do more to protect them. Ninety Palestinian journalists in Gaza have been killed in the last five months, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That is the most recorded in any single conflict since the CPJ started collecting data in 1992.

By resigning publicly, I am saddened by the knowledge that I likely foreclose a future at the State Department. I had not initially planned a public resignation. Because my time at State had been so short — I was hired on a two-year contract — I did not think I mattered enough to announce my resignation publicly. However, when I started to tell colleagues of my decision to resign, the response I heard repeatedly was, “Please speak for us.”

Members of the Al-Rabaya family break their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan outside their destroyed home by the Israeli airstrikes in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, March 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Across the federal government, employees like me have tried for months to influence policy, both internally and, when that failed, publicly. My colleagues and I watched in horror as this administration delivered thousands of precision-guided munitions, bombs, small arms and other lethal aid to Israel and authorized thousands more, even bypassing Congress to do so. We are appalled by the administration’s flagrant disregard for American laws that prohibit the US from providing assistance to foreign militaries that engage in gross human rights violations or that restrict the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The Biden administration’s own policy states, “The legitimacy of and public support for arms transfers among the populations of both the United States and recipient nations depends on the protection of civilians from harm, and the United States distinguishes itself from other potential sources of arms transfers by elevating the importance of protecting civilians.” Yet this noble statement of policy has been directly in contradiction with the actions of the president who promulgated it.

President Joe Biden himself indirectly admits that Israel is not protecting Palestinian civilians from harm. Under pressure from some congressional Democrats, the administration issued a new policy to ensure that foreign military transfers don’t violate relevant domestic and international laws.

Yet just recently, the State Department ascertained that Israel is in compliance with international law in the conduct of the war and in providing humanitarian assistance. To say this when Israel is preventing the adequate entrance of humanitarian aid and the US is being forced to air drop food to starving Gazans, this finding makes a mockery of the administration’s claims to care about the law or about the fate of innocent Palestinians.

This picture shows smoke billowing following Israeli bombardments over east Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 13, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas militant group.

Some have argued that the US lacks influence over Israel. Yet Retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Brick noted in November that Israel’s missiles, bombs and airplanes all come from the US. “The minute they turn off the tap, you can’t keep fighting,” he said. “Everyone understands that we can’t fight this war without the United States. Period.”

Even now, Israel is considering invading Lebanon, which brings a heightened risk of regional conflict that would be catastrophic. The US has sought to prevent this outcome but shows no appetite for withholding offensive weapons from Israel in order to compel greater restraint there or in Gaza. Biden’s support for Israel’s far-right government thus risks sparking a wider conflagration in the region, which could well put US troops in harm’s way.

So many of my colleagues feel betrayed. I write for myself but speak for many others, including Feds United for Peace, a group mobilizing for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza that represents federal workers in their personal capacities across the country, and across 30 federal agencies and departments. After four years of then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to cripple the department, State employees embraced Biden’s pledge to rebuild American diplomacy. For some, US support for Ukraine against Russia’s illegal occupation and bombardment seemed to reestablish America’s moral leadership. Yet the administration continues to enable Israel’s illegal occupation and destruction of Gaza.

I am haunted by the final social media post of Aaron Bushnell, the 25-year-old US Air Force serviceman who self-immolated in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington on February 25: “Many of us like to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’ The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.”

I can no longer continue what I was doing. I hope that my resignation can contribute to the many efforts to push the administration to withdraw support for Israel’s war, for the sake of the 2 million Palestinians whose lives are at risk and for the sake of America’s moral standing in the world.