Palestinian doctor walked out of Biden meeting, underscoring tensions over war in Gaza

The doctor said he left to "bring the protest to the forefront" for Biden.

April 3, 2024, 5:58 PM

A private meeting between President Joe Biden and Muslim community leaders at the White House underscored tensions between the two camps as the Israel-Hamas war rages on.

One Palestinian doctor walked out of Tuesday evening's closed-door session, which was part of the administration's scaled-back events to mark the holy month of Ramadan.

Dr. Thaer Ahmad told ABC News contributor Asma Khalid, a White House correspondent for NPR, he left the meeting to "bring the protest to the forefront of the president."

"I wanted to be able to communicate also what I had witnessed firsthand," Ahmad said, noting that he wanted to convey what was taking place inside Gaza as someone who'd been there since Oct. 7.

"So, it was tough. I wanted to communicate that message," he continued. "But at the same time, I also wanted it to be clear that up until now, what the White House has done is not sufficient enough."

Ahmad also delivered to the president a letter from a little girl in Rafah pleading for Biden to help end the conflict.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was peppered with questions about the incident at Wednesday's press briefing.

"He understands that this is a painful moment for many Americans across the country," she told reporters about Biden's reaction to the walkout. "And so, he respects their freedom to peacefully protest."

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the March jobs report, during a speech in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, April 1, 2022.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The behind-closed-doors meeting with Muslim community leaders was followed by a small iftar dinner to mark the end of the daily fast during Ramadan with Muslim administration staffers. The downsized events were a departure from years past, when the president would host hundreds for a reception and deliver remarks in front of guests and the press.

Jean-Pierre emphasized the private setting was requested by Muslim community leaders and the White House listened.

Ahmad, who also appeared on ABC News Live on Wednesday evening, said the group wanted to speak about what's taking place in Gaza and their fears about a looming Rafah invasion.

"We didn't think it was appropriate to do so over soup and salad," he said.

During the meeting, Jean-Pierre said. said, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris told leaders they're committed to working toward an immediate cease-fire in Gaza as part of a deal to free the hostages held by Hamas, as well as increasing assistance into Gaza as the humanitarian crisis there continues to grow.

"And the president made clear that he mourns the loss of every innocent life in this conflict, Palestinian and Israeli," Jean-Pierre added. "The president and vice president are committed to continue engaging with these leaders moving forward."

Biden has faced growing anger from the Arab American and Muslim communities over his continued support for Israel in its fight against Hamas as aid organizations exhaustively warn of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and risk of imminent famine inside Gaza.

Both the Biden-Harris campaign and the administration have ramped up outreach to these communities in recent months, though some attempts to set up meetings have been rebuffed.

The war in Gaza is approaching the six-month mark after Hamas launched a surprise terror attack on Israel on Oct. 7. More than 1,200 people were killed in that attack, according to Israeli officials. In Gaza, more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 74,000 others have been injured amid Israel's ongoing ground operations and aerial bombardment of the strip, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

Dr. Ahmad told Khalid he was the first to speak with Biden at the meeting and described watching Nasser Hospital, where he worked, become inoperable and people flee to Rafah -- a city in southern Gaza where 1.4 million Palestinians are believed to be taking refuge. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his forces are planning a military operation in Rafah to root out Hamas.

"I also said that I'm disappointed that I'm the only Palestinian-American person here and that out of respect for my community and everybody that's grieving and mourning all of the loss of life that's in the Gaza Strip, I have to excuse myself and walk out," Ahmad said. "And then I handed him [Biden] a letter from an 8-year-old orphan in Rafah, basically, essentially begging [Israel] not to invade. He took the letter. He looked at it and then he said he understood."

Ahmad shared a photo with ABC News of the 8-year-old girl holding up the letter. In it, she said she lost her "entire family" in the war and expressed fear about being displaced in Rafah. She wrote, "This is scaring me a lot because there is no place left for us to go."

The letter also included a direct message for Biden: “Amanah Amanah ya Biden” which translates to, "Save us save us oh Biden."

A young girl in Gaza holds up a letter expressing fear about a possible Israeli invasion of Rafah and pleading with President Joe Biden to help end the conflict.
Obtained by ABC News

"She's begging the president of the United States to make sure that Israel doesn't cause a bloodbath," Ahmad said on ABC News Live.

Ahmad said the more than 1 million Palestinians sheltering in Rafah are "terrified. They feel every single shake from the bombs, they hear every single fighter jet fly above their head."

"That's really the urgency that we're trying to communicate," he said. "It's not about me just getting up and walking out of the room with the president. It's really not about some theatrical performance. It's just purely trying to do whatever we can to bring attention to this looming invasion."

Palestinian doctor Thaer Ahmad appears on ABCNL, on April 3, 2024.
ABC News

When asked Wednesday if Biden had read the letter, Jean-Pierre declined to share any more details about the content of the meeting. She also declined to state directly if the meeting was the first time Biden had spoken with anyone who had been in Gaza since Oct. 7 and declined to say how the list of attendees came together.

Asked specifically about Israel's plans for Rafah, Jean-Pierre said the administration is continuing to have conversations on the matter, including the virtual talks that took place Monday. Administration officials have said they expect to have an in-person meeting with Israel officials next week.

"Our hope is that we can get to a place where we are indeed protecting innocent lives in Rafah," she said.

ABC News' Nadine Shubailat contributed to this report.