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White House officials expected to meet with Arab and Muslim leaders in Chicago Thursday

Senior White House officials are planning to meet with Arab-, Muslim- and Palestinian-American community leaders in Chicago on Thursday, multiple sources familiar with the meeting told CNN, as President Joe Biden continues to grapple with anger and concern across the country about the Israel-Hamas war.

Thursday’s meeting would mark the latest in ongoing efforts by the Biden White House to hear directly about concerns over the situation in Gaza, though that is hardly expected to be the only issue discussed. Officials are also expected to more broadly discuss concerns about Islamophobia in the US in the aftermath of Hamas’ terror attacks on October 7.

Among those expected to participate in the meeting, according to sources, are: Tom Perez, the White House’s director of intergovernmental affairs; Steve Benjamin, White House director of public engagement; Mazen Basrawi, White House liaison to Muslim-American communities; Curtis Ried, the National Security Council chief of staff; and aides Dan Koh and Jamie Citron.

Vivian Khalaf, chairman of the board of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, told CNN that she was invited to Thursday’s meeting with White House officials but declined to attend. In an interview, she made clear her deep dissatisfaction with the Biden administration’s handling of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“Under the current conditions, for every life we save by dropping food, at least 10 more are being killed by the dropping of bombs,” Khalaf said, referencing the US’ recent efforts to airdrop humanitarian aid into Gaza. “I know this, because I am living it every day through the organization that I lead.”

Several other community leaders familiar with Thursday’s meeting told CNN that there was an active effort by some to boycott sitting down with White House officials as a way of pressing Biden to call for a permanent ceasefire in the war. A large group of activists in the greater Chicago area sent a letter to the White House ahead of the meeting, lambasting the outreach.

“There is no point in more meetings. The White House already knows the position of the aforementioned groups and our allies across the nation,” the letter read.

The letter continued, “There is no confusion as to our consistent demand for an immediate ceasefire to end the mass murder of civilians and stave off the worst humanitarian crisis in modern times. We believe another meeting would only act to whitewash months of White House inaction followed by meek handouts. We are interested in serious action.”

The letter was signed by a few dozen coalitions and community leaders. Tarek Khalil, an attorney and board member with American Muslims for Palestine-Chicago, was among the activists who spearheaded the letter. Khalil was not personally invited to the White House meeting but suggested that “a good portion” of the signatories were.

It was not immediately clear who would be represented at the meeting, and the White House declined to provide a list of attendees.

“You cannot play firefighter and arsonist at the same time,” Khalil said of the White House’s policy on the conflict.

Khalil added, “If this community felt that this would be fruitful and it would be beneficial, we would’ve accepted the invitation. But this is a cynical invite, it’s not grounded in a principal moral stance but rather in political expediency.”

Asked for comment on the letter, a White House official told CNN, “Senior officials are in Chicago for a series of meeting with community leaders, part of an ongoing process to engage with communities impacted by the Mideast conflict.

The Chicago area has sizeable Muslim and Arab populations. The city’s residents are still reeling from the recent death of 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume, who was stabbed 26 times in October allegedly by his family’s landlord. Authorities said he was targeted for being Muslim.

Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other top US officials have escalated calls for a temporary ceasefire and to ramp up humanitarian aid going into Gaza in recent weeks, urging Israel to do more to protect civilians. But negotiations remain stalled, even as the humanitarian toll of the Israel-Hamas war rises.

Biden is confronting mounting discontent within his own party over his handling of the conflict, including young and progressive voters and voters in battleground states that will be critical to his 2024 coalition.

On Thursday, White House officials and community leaders are expected to discuss concerns ranging from the war to a rising tide of Islamophobic incidents. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it received 3,578 complaints of anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian incidents during the last three months of 2023, a 178% increase over the previous year.

The expected meeting comes on the same day that Biden is traveling to Michigan, his first re turn to the state since the Democratic primary contest there produced more than 100,000 “uncommitted” votes – in large part fueled by fury about the president’s handling of the war.

Last month, senior Biden administration officials – including United States Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power and principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer – met with members of Arab- and Muslim-American communities in Michigan, home to one of the country’s largest Arab and Muslim populations.

Thursday’s meeting is a part of the White House’s ongoing efforts to reach Arab and Muslim communities. The White House has said it has had more than a hundred conversations with local and state leaders about the Israel-Hamas conflict. It is also fielding concerns internally; chief of staff Jeff Zients held a listening session with Muslim-, Arab- and Palestinian-American staff, and he directed Biden’s Cabinet to reach out to their own Muslim-, Arab- and Palestinian-American staff.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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