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State Department rushes to respond to internal outcry over Israel-Hamas war

Israeli forces continue push into Gaza City
Israeli forces continue push into Gaza City 02:39

Senior State Department officials have held listening sessions for diplomats serving in six U.S. embassies in the Middle East and North Africa amid a persistent internal outcry over the Biden administration's approach to the war in Gaza, officials told CBS News, as the department rushes to address criticism from its workforce in both Washington and abroad.

The sessions come amid a swell of protest from diplomats, civil servants and other department employees as the conflict enters its second month and civilian casualties in Gaza resulting from Israel's retaliatory military operations mount.

At least one cable has been submitted to the department's Dissent Channel, CBS News has learned, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met personally with its authors. A source familiar with Blinken's engagements said he regularly solicits differing viewpoints from diplomatic colleagues.

The department's Dissent Channel was established during the Vietnam War as a mechanism for professional diplomats to submit substantive policy concerns or opinions directly to senior officials, including the secretary of state, without fear of retribution or adverse career effects. It is thought to be used a handful of times per year, on average. While some cables have leaked in the past, most remain private.

The State Department declined to comment on the cable. 

 A sign stand outside the U.S. State Department September 12, 2012 in Washington, DC. U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  Alex Wong, Getty Images

"We are proud that the department has an established procedure for employees to articulate policy disagreements directly to senior department principals in this building without fear of retribution," State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a press briefing Tuesday. "[We] understand and we expect people in our workforce to have different personal beliefs, different beliefs about what U.S. foreign policy should be."

"We encourage individuals to continue to make those opinions known," he added.

In the weeks following the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, virtual town hall meetings have been held by senior department officials with U.S. embassy staffs in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq and Oman. Additional sessions are expected soon for employees posted in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, a State Department official said.

The sessions are being held to address concerns from diplomats working in the field as well as to circulate mental health and wellness resources being offered by the department, the official said. Under Secretary of State for Management John Bass and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma have led the sessions, according to the State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.

In Washington, both Blinken and Acting Deputy Secretary Victoria Nuland have met multiple times with employees from across the department, including those serving in the Near East Affairs and Political-Military Affairs bureaus. The meetings have been emotionally charged and included candid exchanges, and some have been standing-room-only, two sources familiar with them said.

Blinken has also met with affinity groups at the department, including Jewish Americans in Diplomacy, American Muslims and Friends at State, and Arab-Americans in Foreign Affairs Agencies, according to the State Department official.

Stress management support groups have been set up for employees stationed in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as have support groups for American Muslims, Arab Americans and people affected by antisemitism. Mental health resources have also been made available to those affected by the conflict, including a dedicated online hub hosting additional wellness resources.

Blinken has sent workforce-wide messages about his own diplomatic engagements in the region. He is completing a second multi-country tour this week. After stops in Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Cyprus, Iraq and Turkey, he continued on to Asia.

At least one State Department official is known to have resigned his post in recent weeks. Josh Paul, a longtime employee who worked on arms transfers within the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, posted a letter on LinkedIn spelling out his disagreement with the administration's decision to provide additional lethal support to Israel, which he called "shortsighted, destructive, unjust, and contradictory to the very values that we publicly espouse."

In a surprise attack on communities in southern Israel on October 7, Hamas militants killed more than 1,400 people, wounded more than 5,400 and took more than 200 hostages, according to U.S. and Israeli officials. Thirty-six U.S. citizens were killed and ten remain unaccounted for, with at least some of those suspected of being hostages, U.S. officials have said.

Since the attacks, Israeli strikes in Gaza have resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 Palestinians, including more than 4,000 children, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. While Israeli and U.S. officials have called into question the exact casualty figures, they acknowledge civilian deaths are in the thousands.

The mounting toll has been roundly condemned by international organizations. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday called Gaza a "graveyard for children" and reiterated calls for a cease-fire.

Both the United States and Israel have publicly opposed a ceasefire, arguing any cessation in Israel's military operations would give Hamas militants an opportunity to regroup and launch fresh attacks. Mr. Biden, Blinken and other American officials have called for humanitarian pauses in the fighting to facilitate the flow of desperately-needed aid into Gaza and to pave the way for the release of hostages being held by Hamas.

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