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Democrat lawmaker backtracks on claim Israel ‘burning down Palestinian villages’

Rep. Ro Khanna says he should have ‘clarified’ he was referring to incidents where ‘Israeli settlers burn Palestinian orchards, olive trees’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

From left, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; speak to reporters on Capitol Hill on Jan. 10, 2019. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
From left, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; speak to reporters on Capitol Hill on Jan. 10, 2019. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

A Democratic congressman accused Israel of “burning down Palestinian villages” on Friday, later walking back that comment and indicating that he was “referring to Israeli settlers who have burned Palestinian orchards” and the Israeli military “which has demolished or bulldozed [Palestinian] villages.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (CA-17) asserted in an interview on Friday with MSNBC that US President Joe Biden would “radically reset” American ties with Israel and hold the latter more to account for its human rights record.

Biden, he said, is “going to make clear that Israel is an ally and always has been an ally, but they have to recognize Palestinian statehood, they can’t be having new settlements, they can’t be burning down Palestinian villages.”

“Human rights are going to matter. We’re going to have a human rights-focused foreign policy,” the Congressman added.

Asked by the channel’s Mehdi Hassan whether Biden would reevaluate relations with either Saudi Arabia, Iran or Israel, Khanna speculated that would be the case for all three countries.

Israel has carried out demolitions of Palestinian villages, as recently as this week, but it argues that it only does so when they are erected illegally. Palestinians argue that Israel does not issue them enough permits or legalize existing villages as it does with settlements in the area.

After leveling the unfounded accusation of Israel “burning down” villages, Khanna’s office did not initially respond to a request for comment on the matter. But in a Twitter exchange on Saturday, Khanna said that he “should have clarified with time that Israeli settlers burn Palestinian orchards and olive trees, while the military has bulldozed and demolished Palestinian homes and villages.” He added a link to a news piece published in October about a UN report on the matter.

In a response on Twitter to this article, Khanna reiterated that he was specifically “referring to Israeli settlers who have burned Palestinian orchards and the military which has demolished or bulldozed villages. As someone who supports the US Israel relationship, surely we can agree both are wrong.”

In a later statement to The Times of Israel, he added: “I have always been a strong supporter of the US Israel relationship. I voted to condemn the BDS movement in the House breaking with other progressives, and I co sponsored and voted for the 10 year aid bill to Israel. I have worked with the Consul General of Israel in SF to strengthen economic cooperation between Israel and Silicon Valley.

“I want for our relationship to be grounded on pluralism and human rights. I recognize and appreciate the security concerns of Israel and the violence Israel faces but believe we must work towards a two state solution, an end to new settlements, and also a stop to the demolitions. My hope is for dialogue and peace in the region.”

Khanna is a progressive congressman and has close ties to Sen. Bernie Sanders. While a critic of Israeli government policy, he has not gone as far as a handful of Democratic colleagues, who support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

But he joins a growing number of progressive Democrats calling for the US to hold Israel more accountable for what they see as its human rights abuses, particularly in the West Bank.

Palestinian Bedouin people watch Israeli troops demolish tents and other structures of the Khirbet Humsa hamlet in the West Bank, Feb. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Earlier this week, Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York penned a letter to Israel’s acting consul general in the city, criticizing the latter’s government for not doing more to vaccinate Palestinians and comparing the discrepancy to racial inequality in the US. Senior House Rep. Joaquin Castro, freshman Rep. Marie Newman, former vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine and Rep. Rashida Tlaib have also voiced their concern over the matter.

Biden has taken a more moderate approach to Israel, fighting off efforts by progressive Democrats during the campaign to include language more critical of the Jewish state in the party’s platform. However, since entering the White House 17 days ago, he has yet to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The US president hasn’t spoken to any Middle Eastern leaders since becoming president. Netanyahu was the first of two leaders in the region to get a call from Biden after he won the election in November.

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