'Immense scale of suffering' in Gaza demands temporary cease-fire, Vice President Harris says

She made her remarks while in Alabama to mark the "Bloody Sunday" anniversary.

March 3, 2024, 5:54 PM

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke on Sunday afternoon in Selma, Alabama, to mark the upcoming 59th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," a milestone moment in the civil rights movement.

At the top of her remarks, however, Harris addressed something else: In some of the administration's most forceful public remarks to date, the vice president called on the Israelis to, in her words, do more for the people in Gaza who are "dying of malnutrition and dehydration" amid the Israeli military's bombardment as it targets Hamas in the wake of Hamas' terror attack.

Citing "the immense scale of suffering in Gaza," Harris also called for Israel and Hamas to agree to a much-negotiated proposal in which there would be a four- to six-week cease-fire in exchange for Hamas releasing vulnerable hostages.

U.S. officials said this weekend that Israel has agreed to that deal and "the onus right now is on Hamas."

Since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack sparked the war, more than 28,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to Gaza's Hamas-run health ministry.

"The Israeli government must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid. No excuses," Harris said in Selma. "They must open new border crossings. They must not impose any unnecessary restrictions on the delivery of aid. They must ensure humanitarian personnel, sites and convoys are not targeted, and they must work to restore basic services and promote order in Gaza so more food, water and fuel can reach those in need."

Harris and President Joe Biden have sought to balance their support for Israel's campaign against Hamas -- which the vice president did again on Sunday, saying the threat from Hamas "must be eliminated" -- with concern for civilians being killed.

Progressives have increasingly spoken out against the administration for not pressuring Israel to end the war.

The U.N. says that more than 570,000 people in Gaza are on the brink of experiencing famine levels of hunger due to the continuing conflict.

Israeli officials insist they take steps to curb civilian deaths and have pushed back on the widespread humanitarian concerns for those in the Palestinian territory.

Ophir Falk, an adviser to Israel's prime minister, said in an interview with ABC News' Tom Soufi Burridge that Israel "is enabling thousands of trucks to get into Gaza."

He also challenged the U.N. warnings of famine but Harris, in her remarks on Sunday, said, "People in Gaza are starving."

"The conditions are inhumane and our common humanity compels us to act," she said.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 59th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, AL, Mar. 3, 2024.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

'Fight for freedom is not over'

In addition to her speech, the vice president also participated in the annual crossing jubilee of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, originally named after a Confederate general, where Alabama state troopers infamously attacked Black demonstrators as they marched for voting rights on March 7, 1965.

The brutality stunned many across the country and galvanized support for the landmark Voting Rights Act.

Harris' visit to Selma comes in an election year as she and President Joe Biden seek to cement their standing with Black voters and tout their continued focus on voting rights, which has largely been stalled in Congress -- drawing some left-wing criticism that the White House could do more without legislation.

Senate Democrats last month reintroduced a major proposal to strengthen voting rights, named in honor of the late Georgia lawmaker and civil rights icon John Lewis, who was beaten to the point of a skull fracture while marching across the bridge in Selma 59 years ago.

Harris said on Sunday that parallels can be made between what happened on "Bloody Sunday" and the fight for freedom she says Americans are facing in 2024 -- eight months before November's election and two days ahead of Super Tuesday.

She didn't mention former President Donald Trump by name but warned against those who attack the integrity of U.S. elections while calling on Congress to pass more voter access and protection laws including the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

"Today we know our fight for freedom is not over -- because in this moment we are witnessing a full-on attack on hard-fought, hard-won freedom. Starting with the freedom that unlocks all others: the freedom to vote, the sacred freedom to vote," she said.

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., whose district includes Selma, Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Rev. Al Sharpton all attended Sunday's bridge crossing along with second gentleman Doug Emhoff.

Selma is also working to expand its high-speed fiber broadband access, which local officials told ABC News is important for empowering residents.

"To be able to circulate factual information quickly, succinctly, that creates a more educated community," Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr. said in an interview ahead of Sunday.

Selma University's president, Stanford Angion, echoed that, saying, "I'm excited because digital equity and being able to reach people in real time is really going to be significant, I think, in increasing voter participation."

Vice President Kamala Harris walks with Al Sharpton as she joins a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 59th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, AL, Mar. 3, 2024.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Harris, the nation's first Black vice president, is a key figure in the administration's efforts to pass more voting rights legislation -- which that hasn't moved out of the Senate because it lacks the support of 10 Republicans to overcome the body's filibuster rule.

Democrats say the bill would restore a provision requiring states and municipalities with a history of voter discrimination to obtain federal "preclearance" before changing voting laws.

Conservatives oppose what they call federal intrusion into state-run elections.

Biden and Harris have made democracy and individual rights key parts of their campaign message while seeking to draw a contrast with Trump, who has been hammering the White House over high inflation, immigration and foreign policy.

The Biden-Harris campaign has fired back, arguing Trump, who looks likely to soon clinch the 2024 Republican nomination, is an anti-democratic candidate while pointing to his role in ending Roe v. Wade's guarantees to abortion access.

Harris repeatedly raised that argument in her speech on Sunday, bemoaning restrictions on abortion, book bans in schools and anti-transgender legislation, among other things.

"Fundamental freedoms, under assault," she said. "The freedom to vote, the freedom from fear, violence and harm. The freedom to learn, the freedom to control one's own body and the freedom to just simply be."

"What kind of country do we want to live in?" Harris said, adding, "We each have the power to answer that question with our voice, with our feet and with our vote."

Perkins, the Selma mayor, likewise called out the scrutiny of diversity and inclusion efforts and new restrictions on ballot access.

"This is really a dangerous time. And this is a very disenfranchising moment for us," he said in his interview ahead of Sunday. "I don't know that people really fully understand how critical this is. But it is something that we really need to be paying attention to."

The vice president's appearance in Selma comes a day after a New York Times and Siena College poll continued to show trouble for Biden in a hypothetical rematch with Trump, the latest in a long string of poor polling for him -- but his campaign threw cold water on that.

"Polling continues to be at odds with how Americans vote, and consistently overestimates Donald Trump while underestimating President Biden," communications director Michael Tyler argued in a statement.

In addition to spearheading voting rights for the Biden administration, Harris has become its main messenger on abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court reversing Roe two years ago. She raised the issue on Sunday, given the relevancy in Alabama after the state Supreme Court upended access to in vitro fertilization by ruling last month that embryos are children under the law.

Lawmakers there, including many Republicans, are pushing to enact new legislation to provide protections for IVF treatments.

Harris launched a "reproductive rights tour" on the 51st anniversary of the Roe decision in battleground Wisconsin, where first lady Jill Biden was on Sunday to promote the "Women for Biden-Harris" program and warn against Trump by name.

Alabama is one of 16 states and territories that will vote on Super Tuesday. It's also the home state of Sen. Katie Britt, who will deliver the State of the Union response for Republicans on Thursday.

Biden, who traveled to Selma last year, posted on social media about the anniversary on Sunday.

"Fifty-nine years ago, brave Americans sought to cross a bridge named after a Klansman in Selma, Alabama, to reach the other side of justice," he wrote. "Today and every day, we honor that legacy by fighting to protect the right to vote and uphold the integrity of our elections."

While there have been calls over the years to rename the site, the late Rep. Lewis co-authored an article with Sewell in The Selma Times-Journal in 2015 in favor of keeping the name.

"Keeping the name of the bridge is not an endorsement of the man who bares its name but rather an acknowledgment that the name of the bridge today is synonymous with the Voting Rights Movement which changed the face of this nation and the world," they wrote.

ABC News' Tesfaye Negussie and Dhanika Pineda contributed to this report.

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