The White House disavowed an American-Islamic advocacy organization on Thursday after the group’s director declared that he “was happy to see” Palestinians break out of Gaza on Oct. 7, the day of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel that killed an estimated 1,200 people and led to the seizure of 240 others as hostages.
A spokesman for President Biden condemned the remarks by Nihad Awad, the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who declared in a speech that Palestinians in Gaza “have the right to self-defense” but that Israel “as an occupying power” does not. Mr. Awad said his comments were being misconstrued.
“We condemn these shocking, antisemitic statements in the strongest terms,” said Mr. Biden’s spokesman, Andrew Bates. “The horrific, brutal terrorist attacks committed by Hamas on Oct. 7 were, as President Biden said, ‘abhorrent’ and represent ‘unadulterated evil.’” Mr. Bates added that the atrocities of that day “shock the conscience” and said that “every leader has a responsibility to call out antisemitism wherever it rears its ugly head.”
The White House did not have an extensive relationship with the council, which goes by the acronym CAIR, but included an officer of the group in a “listening session on Islamophobia” in May with Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. Later that month, the White House listed the council among several independent organizations in a document discussing commitments to fight antisemitism. The White House removed CAIR’s name from that online document on Thursday after Mr. Awad’s remarks to make clear it was distancing itself from the organization.
CAIR has long been a controversial player in Washington, presenting itself as a champion of civil rights for Muslims in an era of Islamophobia yet regularly pilloried by many, especially on the political right, as an apologist for extremism. Mr. Awad, a Palestinian American, and his group have been accused of past sympathy for Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union. While Mr. Awad said in 1994 that he was “in support of the Hamas movement,” he said in 2006 that “I don’t support Hamas today,” and CAIR has denied any ties to the group or support for terrorism.
The remarks by Mr. Awad were made two weeks ago at a gathering of American Muslims for Palestine but were given wide circulation on Thursday morning by the Middle East Media Research Institute, or Memri, a Washington-based group founded by a veteran Israeli intelligence officer that monitors and translates Arabic and other media. In a video posted online, Mr. Awad was seen seemingly celebrating and justifying the Oct. 7 attack.
“The people of Gaza only decided to break the siege, the walls of the concentration camp, on Oct. 7,” he said. “And yes, I was happy to see people breaking the siege and throwing down the shackles of their own land and walk free into their land that they were not allowed to walk in.
“And yes,” he continued, “the people of Gaza have the right to self-defense, have the right to defend themselves, and yes, Israel as an occupying power does not have that right to self-defense.”
Mr. Awad said in a statement on Thursday that his comments were taken “out of context” by “an anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian hate website” to distort his meaning. In another part of his speech that was not included in the video, he said he denounced hate against Jews and called antisemitism “a real evil” that “has to be rejected and combated by all people.”
He said his comments in the speech about Oct. 7 referred to Palestinians who crossed from Gaza into Israel after the border was breached that day but did not themselves engage in violence.
“The average Palestinians who briefly walked out of Gaza and set foot on their ethnically cleansed land in a symbolic act of defiance against the blockade and stopped there without engaging in violence were within their rights under international law,” Mr. Awad said in the statement. “The extremists who went on to attack civilians in southern Israel were not. Targeting civilians is unacceptable, no matter whether they are Israeli or Palestinian or any other nationality.”