State Department official quits post over Gaza

A State Department official working on human-rights issues in the Middle East resigned Wednesday in protest of U.S. support for Israel's war in Gaza, the latest example of dissent among government personnel bursting into public view.

Annelle Sheline, 38, stepped down after a year as a foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, with nearly half that tenure marked by the war Israel launched in response to a devastating Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

In an interview, Sheline said her focus had been promoting human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, work that was complicated by Israel's war and a host of accompanying moral, legal, security and diplomatic implications for the United States. Sheline said she tried to raise concerns internally with dissent cables and at staff forums but eventually concluded that it was pointless "as long as the U.S. continues to send a steady stream of weapons to Israel."

"I wasn't able to really do my job anymore," she said. "Trying to advocate for human rights just became impossible."

Sheline's departure is the most significant protest resignation over the Gaza conflict since the exit of Josh Paul, who was a senior State Department official involved in arms transfers to foreign governments.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Paul commended Sheline for her decision, noting that she is leaving a bureau tasked with championing "universal values, including respect for the rule of law, democratic institutions and human rights," according to the State Department website.

"When the staff of that bureau feel that there is no more they can do, it speaks volumes about the Biden administration's disregard for the laws, policies and basic humanity of American foreign policy that the bureau exists to advance," Paul said.

Sheline said she had planned to leave quietly, telling her bosses it was over Gaza, but decided to speak up at the request of colleagues who told her they wanted to resign but couldn't because of financial or family considerations.

Sheline said that despite the support she has received at the State Department, "there are plenty of people who wouldn't agree with my point of view."

At internal listening sessions on the war, she said, some employees "stand up and say, 'I appreciate everything the U.S. government and the State Department are doing for Israel, and I really support it.'" Those comments typically get pushback from others in the audience, she added.

At one of those meetings, Sheline recalled, she asked about administration priorities -- competition with China, human rights, climate change -- that she felt were being undermined by blank-check support for Israel.

"My question was: Why is this support for Israel seen as more important than all of these other, arguably very significant priorities?" she said. "I still don't feel like I have a great answer as to why."

Only a handful of officials have left government over the war. For months, however, workers have telegraphed discontent over Israel policy in other ways. At the State Department, officials have written multiple cables on Gaza in the dissent channel, a Vietnam War-era mechanism for internal protest. At the U.S. Agency for International Development, hundreds of employees endorsed a letter in November calling for the Biden administration to use its leverage to initiate a cease-fire. Other officials have challenged agency leaders during public events.

In February, an active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force set himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington after saying he could "no longer be complicit in genocide." He died of his injuries.

Scores of officials across the federal workforce participate in private chat groups for organizing fundraising and public demonstrations and venting about U.S. policy.

Despite the dissent, the administration has maintained its military support for Israel's campaign in Gaza, authorizing the transfer of thousands of bombs and other munitions since Oct. 7. But the administration's tone has begun to change.

The State Department now routinely expresses concern about the bloodshed. The administration has also increased public pressure on Israel to allow more humanitarian assistance into Gaza.

Sheline was hired by the State Department in the Near Eastern affairs section of the bureau that compiles an annual country-by-country report on the state of human rights around the world. She worked mostly on North Africa, liaising with activists and civic groups to promote democratic values.

That work has become nearly impossible, Sheline said, with partners in the region incensed by the continued flow of U.S. arms to Israel despite the staggering toll of the war. Some activist groups have stopped talking to American personnel, she said.

When asked about Sheline's resignation, State Department spokesperson Matt Miller told reporters that Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomes dissent within the department and "has instructed his team" to ensure employees have opportunities to make their views known.

"He wants to hear them. He reads dissent cables when dissent cables are authored on any issue. He meets with employees who have a broad range of views, he listens to their feedback, and he takes it into account in his decision-making," Miller said.

He noted that Sheline had "just finished the first year of a fellowship that could have gone for two years and did not exercise her option to return for a second year as a fellow."

Sheline said she had planned to stay on at State, but the Gaza war changed her mind. She notified her supervisors six weeks ago that she would be resigning once she had completed a year of service. She plans to work on a book based on her academic research, though she is still coming to grips with the long-term price she is likely to pay for taking a stand on a politically toxic issue.

"I know I'm foreclosing any sort of future at the State Department, or maybe even in the U.S. government, which I think is unfortunate because I really valued the work that I was doing there," Sheline said.

As someone with "a daughter and a mortgage," Sheline said, she understands the financial risk of quitting, one of many reasons her former colleagues cited for choosing to stay and fight for policy changes from inside government.

"They really believe in the mission," she said of her colleagues. "They believe in America, and what this country says it's supposed to stand for."

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