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I Could Not Stay Silent: Annelle Sheline Resigns from State Dept. over U.S. Gaza Policy

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A State Department official working on human rights issues in the Middle East resigned Wednesday in protest of U.S. support for Israel’s assault on Gaza. Annelle Sheline, who worked as a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, was not planning on publicly resigning, but her colleagues asked her to “please speak out” against the Biden administration’s unconditional support for Israel. “At the end of the day, many people inside [the State Department] know that this is a horrific policy, and can’t believe that the United States government is engaged in such actions that contravene American values so directly, but the leadership is not listening,” says Sheline. “I’m trying to speak on behalf of those many, many people who feel so betrayed by our government’s stance.” Sheline describes being moved by the words of Aaron Bushnell, the active-duty U.S. airman who set himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in protest of the war on Gaza, who implored everyone to take a stand against genocide. “I have a young daughter, and I thought about, in the future, if she were to ask me, 'What were you doing when this was happening? You were at the State Department.' I want to be able to tell her that I didn’t stay silent.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: A State Department official working on human rights issues in the Middle East resigned Wednesday in protest against U.S. support for Israel’s assault on Gaza. Annelle Sheline worked as a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor for a year, before publicly resigning.

In an op-ed published in CNN, she wrote, quote, “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,” she wrote.

AMY GOODMAN: Annelle Sheline is the most significant protest resignation over U.S. support for Israel’s assault on Gaza since the resignation in October of Josh Paul, the senior State Department official involved in arms transfers to foreign governments.

Annelle Sheline joins us now from Washington, D.C.

Annelle, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you tell us further about the decision you made?

ANNELLE SHELINE: Thanks so much for having me and for your coverage of this issue.

I hadn’t initially planned to resign publicly. I hadn’t been at State for very long, and I didn’t think it would necessarily matter. But I decided to go public because when I started to tell colleagues that I was planning to resign over Gaza, so many people’s response was, “Please speak out. Please speak for us.” Many people are not in a position where they feel they could resign, or they are trying to do what they can on the inside. There’s still a lot of important, crucial work the State Department does. And so I decided I would go ahead and go public.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you told — Annelle, you told The Washington Post that you tried to raise concerns internally with dissent cables and at staff forums. So, what was the result of that? And how are other people within State, as you said, trying to speak out within the State Department to change policy?

ANNELLE SHELINE: Yes, many people are extremely horrified by the U.S. government’s position on this horrific conflict and the actions of both the Israeli and the U.S. governments. There is the dissent channel inside the State Department. I was in — I co-wrote a cable and signed other cables. There have been forums for State Department employees to speak out. I spoke with supervisors. I was able to speak with a senior official about my resignation. I think, at the end of the day, many people inside State know that this is a horrific policy and can’t believe that the United States government is engaged in such actions that contravene American values so directly. But the leadership is not listening.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the State Department spokesperson Matt Miller being questioned by a reporter about the internal dissent channel within the State Department and employees raising concerns over the policies.

HUMEYRA PAMUK: What is the point of the whole channel? And, like, I mean, the secretary listens, and we’ve all reported about various listening sessions between mid-level or, like, more senior officials with the secretary, more junior officials. If it’s not — if it’s being heard, but if it’s not taken into account in the policy at all —

MATTHEW MILLER: So —

HUMEYRA PAMUK: — then don’t you think it’s a little bit pointless?

MATTHEW MILLER: So, I would disagree with that completely. It is taken into account in the policy-making process. The secretary has heard things in those meetings that he takes on board and that he — that influence his thinking and that he brings to bear in making policy decisions. Now, if what you mean is, are we going to execute a complete reversal of the policy that —

HUMEYRA PAMUK: No, that’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean.

MATTHEW MILLER: — hold on — we implemented, or are you going to — are we going to implement exactly some of the policies that the people in these meetings have called for —

HUMEYRA PAMUK: No, not at all.

MATTHEW MILLER: — that’s not how —

HUMEYRA PAMUK: That’s —

MATTHEW MILLER: Hold on. That’s not how this process works. That’s not how government works. And that’s —

HUMEYRA PAMUK: No, I don’t think that’s anyone’s expectation.

MATTHEW MILLER: And that’s — let me just say, that’s not how any organization works. I daresay any of the media organizations in this room, if reporters go to their bosses and offer feedback, and the bosses say, “Well, that’s a good point. We’re going to take that to bear. But on the larger policy, this is the decision that we have made,” that’s how — that’s how leadership —

HUMEYRA PAMUK: You’re doing a long rant about something that I didn’t suggest.

MATTHEW MILLER: That is how leadership works.

HUMEYRA PAMUK: But do you have any examples on, you know, any changes —

MATTHEW MILLER: Yeah. I will — I will say —

HUMEYRA PAMUK: Like, I’m genuinely curious.

MATTHEW MILLER: I will say, with respect to any number of issues, with respect to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, we have heard good ideas from people inside the building who have come and offered constructive feedback, and we have implemented those.

HUMEYRA PAMUK: So —

MATTHEW MILLER: Now — now, there are people that when you say if — like, if the idea is that — to the United States to cut off support for Israel, that’s just a fundamental policy disagreement. So, when you see people who offer interviews that say, “We want the United States to stop supporting Israel’s right to defend itself,” that’s not something the secretary agrees with, it’s not something the president agrees with, and ultimately they are the ones who have the responsibility of making those decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Annelle Sheline, if you can respond to the State Department spokesperson Matt Miller?

ANNELLE SHELINE: You know, I think American law is quite clear here, in terms of the Leahy laws, for example, that when a foreign military is credibly accused of gross human rights violations, the law is that the U.S. will no longer provide weapons to those units, or 620I of the Foreign Assistance Act, that a government that is blocking American humanitarian aid is no longer eligible for U.S. military assistance. These laws are not being applied.

So, I think this is not only having a horrific effect on the people of Gaza, but in terms of America’s standing in the rest of the world, this administration came in pledging to reestablish American moral leadership, reengagement with the international community, uphold the law and the so-called rules-based liberal international order, and I think it’s just become clear that this administration is not, in fact, conducting — carrying out any of those pledges. And, you know, my work was on human rights, which is very important work that the State Department does. But I think, on this issue in particular, the political calculus has been that U.S. support for Israel is a better political move. But I think what the administration may be starting to see is they may have made the wrong decision on that politically.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Annelle, can you explain whether there’s any distinction made — there’s a blanket statement about U.S. support for Israel. But is there no distinction within discussions at the State Department between different forms of U.S. support for Israel? So, for instance, obviously, in this instance, the most important question is that of military aid to Israel at this moment.

ANNELLE SHELINE: There, I should be clear that, you know, my area of focus, I was not — Israel and Palestine were not part of my portfolio. I was focusing primarily on North Africa, so I can’t speak directly to some of those conversations. I do think, you know, at the end of the day, the U.S.-Israel relationship is considered of such political importance that decisions regarding it are made at the very top. And so, while there are other processes and certainly discussions going on inside State, inside other parts of the government about some of those nuances you were discussing, I don’t think we’re likely to see any public shift on any of that until those decisions come from the top that they’re ready to reimagine the U.S.-Israel relationship.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to another clip of the State Department spokesperson Matt Miller, saying the Biden administration has not found Israel’s actions in Gaza to be a violation of international law. This is some of what he said.

MATTHEW MILLER: We have not found them to be in violation of international humanitarian law, either when it comes to the conduct of the war or when it comes to the provision of humanitarian assistance.

AMY GOODMAN: That was this week, Annelle Sheline, either violation of international law or when it comes to providing humanitarian assistance. And yet President Biden says he is building a port because the Palestinians cannot get enough aid.

ANNELLE SHELINE: Exactly. I think that the evidence speaks for itself. We’ve had, you know, not only the ICJ’s ruling, not only the U.N. Security Council ruling. Clearly, the administration is unwilling to admit to reality. And again, I just want to reiterate, I think this is not only obviously devastating for the lives of people in Gaza, but is doing incredible damage to America’s standing on the international stage. It is incredibly demoralizing for people inside the State Department, many of whom believe very deeply in what America says it stands for. So, I’m trying to speak on behalf of those many, many people who feel so betrayed by our government’s stance.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Annelle, could you explain the effect that the massive protests across the United States have had within the State Department, what discussion there was of them, and then, of course, the “uncommitted” vote?

ANNELLE SHELINE: So, within the State Department, you know, civil servants are very committed to their role of being nonpolitical, of following the instruction that they receive. You know, within State, people are aware of what’s going on outside. But, you know, this is not the first time that people have been involved or had to carry out policies they perhaps did not agree with, and it is something that many of these people have signed up for. This is the role of carrying out America’s foreign policy.

On this issue, I think, because it has been so horrific and because we are seeing such growing political pushback from the American public, people are increasingly frustrated. You know, many other people with whom I spoke said they’re considering resigning. But again, it is challenging for someone to — you know, it’s not easy to not have a job in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to quote further what you’ve said in explanation of why you’re resigning. You said you’re “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.” You quote him: “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.” If you can explain what that meant to you and how people have responded to you?

ANNELLE SHELINE: Sorry. You know, that post, I think, spoke to me and many people, who had to really look at what they were doing and whether — you know, for me, I have a young daughter. And I thought about, in the future, if she were to ask me, you know, “What were you doing when this was happening? You were at the State Department.” I want to be able to tell her that I didn’t stay silent. And I know many people who are deeply affected by those words that Aaron Bushnell posted. And I do think people are trying to do what they can. There is still very important work being done inside the State Department. But I do think, until our top levels of leadership are ready to make a change, there’s very little that the rank and file are able to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Annelle Sheline, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Annelle has just resigned from the State Department in protest of U.S. support for Israel’s war on Gaza. She worked as foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. She’s also the first State Department official to publicly resign since Josh Paul did months ago.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we speak to the spokesperson for UNRWA. President Biden just signed off on a bipartisan bill, turning it into law, which says that UNRWA will not be funded by the U.S. government for the next year. Stay with us.

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As Gaza Faces Famine, Israel Cuts Ties with UNRWA and U.S. Halts Funding for Critical Aid Agency

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