When Hamas terrorists rained thousands of rockets down on Israel last month and infiltrated the country in an unprecedented surprise attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis, the region was on the brink of a new war.
More than 6,000 miles away from his ancestral home and with Tuesday’s election looming large, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke — the only Palestinian-American in Virginia’s legislature — suddenly found himself having to navigate a fine line between endorsing President Joe Biden’s full public support for Israel and watching the civilian death toll in Gaza climb by the day.
And a recent post by Rasoul on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, in which he chided Israel for the explosion at a hospital in Gaza that left hundreds dead, sparked an online controversy with more than 150 responses, with at least one X user alleging that Rasoul was spreading “Hamas propaganda which fuels antisemitism.”
But Rasoul, whose parents immigrated to the United States in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967, and who has visited the West Bank more than half a dozen times, remained unfazed by the public outrage over his tweet. “We try to stay laser-focused on my constituents here in the Roanoke valley and people in the commonwealth,” he said in an interview Friday.
However, as a Palestinian-American with many relatives living in the West Bank and a number of friends who remain in Gaza, Rasoul said it is impossible to remain silent in the wake of the loss of innocent lives on both sides during this conflict.
“The first thought is of course any attack on innocent civilians is heinous, and that kind of attack should be condemned,” Rasoul said in the interview, referring to the Hamas surprise attack on Israel. “Having grown up with this conflict, you can imagine that attacks like this of course would produce an escalation very quickly.”
Since then, the conflict has escalated rapidly, “and sadly approximately 150 children are being killed every single day.” Rasoul said. “It’s a tough reality, and certainly as a state legislator it’s outside of our policy realm, but as human beings we hate to see this kind of pain and suffering.”
On Oct. 13 — six days after the Hamas attack on Israeli settlements along the border with Gaza — Rasoul first turned to Facebook, sharing his perspective “as a Palestinian-American … during this difficult time.”
In his statement he called the loss of Palestinian and Israeli lives “heartbreaking,” and he denounced the “atrocities committed by Hamas” against Israeli civilians as “reprehensible.”
But Rasoul also said that “mounting civilian casualties in Gaza from “indiscriminate bombing by Israel” were “devastating.” Israel’s “blanket denial” of food, water and other necessities to Gaza “is a serious violation of international law and only harms the innocent civilians — half of whom are children,” he wrote.
The targeting of civilians, Rasoul continued, is a war crime, “no matter who does it,” and he urged the international community to work to protect the innocents on both sides of this conflict.
“All hatred — including antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab — should be called out and rejected,” Rasoul wrote. “No person, anywhere, should have to live in fear of hate and violence. We cannot ignore each other’s humanity, each of us deserve equal rights, freedom from oppression, and a life of dignity.”
Four days later, Rasoul reacted on X to the massive blast at the Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City that — according to the Hamas-run health ministry — was caused by an Israeli airstrike, leaving hundreds of Palestinian civilians dead.
“Today Israel bombed a hospital and a UN school. War crimes it will never be held accountable for,” Rasoul tweeted that day. “Over 1,000 children dead in 10 days. Sickening.”
But a day after the explosion, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that a Palestinian militant group was behind the strike.
And Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, who co-chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that based on the information provided to the committee, “we feel confident that the explosion was the result of a failed rocket launch by militant terrorists and not the result of an Israeli airstrike.”
Rasoul’s tweet created a strong response on social media, where dozens urged him to delete or correct it after U.S. officials weighed in.
“I hope that you’ll retract this post now that the truth has shown through the fog of war — the hospital was not bombed by Israel, nor was the hospital bombed at all. A failed Hamas rocket landed in the hospital’s parking lot,” one X user responded.
Others were less respectful, accusing Rasoul of putting the lives of U.S. State Department personnel stationed at foreign embassies and consulates in “extreme danger,” as another X user wrote. “You are unfit for office.”
With Tuesday’s election just around the corner, House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, decried the silence of House Democrats over the controversy.
“I shouldn’t be the one commenting on the moral clarity of members of the House Democrat caucus,” Gilbert said in an email. “Their leadership, or any single member of the Democrat caucus, should be willing to stand up and demonstrate that they know the difference between right and wrong. So far no one has.”
Garren Shipley, a spokesman for House Republicans, called Rasoul’s tweet “blatantly antisemitic.”
However, as recently as last week, the cause behind the explosion at the hospital remained contested. And a recent analysis by The New York Times casts doubt on one of the most publicized pieces of evidence that Israeli officials have used to make their case and complicates the “straightforward narrative they have put forth.”
And three weeks after the deadly blast, Rasoul continues to stand by his post.
“There were three parts to the tweet,” he said in the interview Friday. “One was the hospital bombing, and no one can definitely refute that, as The New York Times has said. Two was the bombing of the U.N. school, and three was the killing of 1,000 children, and now that number is closer to 4,000 children. What’s being lost in this conversation is the sheer humanity of so many children dying.”
Rasoul called the response from Republicans to his tweet a “political spin, and they have the right to do that.”
“What I am proud of is all of the wonderful Jewish Americans who have stood by and said we don’t want the blanket killing of innocent civilians under our name,” he said. “The Israeli military should never be conflated with our Jewish brothers and sisters, because we clearly know that these are two different things.”
Rabbi Kathy Cohen of Temple Emmanuel in Roanoke did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment Monday.
A spokesperson for the House Democratic caucus said in a text message Monday that while Democrats “condemn the terrorist actions of Hamas” and are “calling for the safe return” for all hostages, “we pray for all of the innocent people in the region, especially the children on the front lines. We recognize the deep pain the last month has brought to people across the nation and pray for the end to the violence.”
David Richards, a political analyst and chair of the political science program at the University of Lynchburg, said that the current Hamas-Israeli war is an “impossible situation in many ways, but especially for politicians.”
“The United States has been a friend to Israel since the very beginning of that state in 1948 and continues to have a foreign policy position that is very much on the side of Israel,” Richards said. “However, there are also millions of Americans who share a heritage from places in the Levant and who have concerns about violence in the region.”
Politicians then have to thread this needle, which is a challenging task, Richards added. “Part of what makes America great is its diversity, but part of what makes it difficult to take a position here is that, in the end, you will take a position that some will find untenable.”
This situation becomes “a no-win choice” for Rasoul, despite running unopposed this year, Richards said. “He clearly wants to show support for people who share his ancestry, while at the same time honoring the Democratic party’s support for Israel as a state. There is the added complication of the election Tuesday in which any possible Democratic victory over all will be on the thinnest of margins.”
Richards said that he cannot fault Rasoul for speaking out. “If this is what he believes, he should be free to say it. If he had stayed silent, a different group would be mad at him.”
After initially avoiding interviews about the conflict, Rasoul on Wednesday last week spoke to a crowd of about 100 at a pro-Palestinian rally at Henrietta Lacks Plaza in downtown Roanoke at the invitation of local members of Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups, who had organized the event.
The Roanoke Times reported that in his speech, Rasoul called for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and for the U.S. to stop funding Israel’s war effort. “Our tax dollars should not be used to kill innocent people on the other side of the world,” Rasoul said, the paper reported.
In the interview on Friday, Rasoul reiterated his call for a ceasefire.
“There are 150 children who are being killed every day because of the indiscriminate bombing. This is just no way to conduct war, and it’s a violation of international law to be conducting war this way,” he said. “What we want is just to save lives, when it all comes down to it.”
His biggest fear, Rasoul added, is that the conflict has the potential to escalate into a bigger regional war, which would create more bloodshed.
“I know that there are many Israelis who would love to see a ceasefire and would love to live peacefully as well of course as do the Palestinians. Any kind of regional conflict would create an environment that’s just tough for anyone,” he said.