More than 100 people gathered at the edge of the Pentacrest on Saturday afternoon to show support for Palestinians as the Israeli military continued attacks on the Palestinian territories in response to rockets fired by the militia Hamas into Israel. The Protest for Palestine, organized by students affiliated with the University of Iowa Middle East and North African Students Association (MENASA), came after a week of the most intense fighting since a two-month-long conflict in Gaza during 2014.
At least 200 Palestinians have been killed since the violence began on May 10, according to estimates. A quarter of the dead were children. The Israeli government reports that 10 Israelis, including one child, have been killed.
The protest was quickly organized last week, and Serena Qamhieh, president of MENASA, said she and other organizers were surprised by the large turnout on Saturday. Qamhieh told the crowd that when she was filling out forms to reserve space at the Clinton Street entrance of the Pentacrest for the protest, she and other organizers thought as few as five people might attend.
“I ended up writing 20 to 30, just to be safe,” she said.
Speakers said the unexpectedly large turnout gave them hope that the way Americans view issues related to Palestine is changing. Too often the disparity in power between Israel and the Palestinians is ignored, “thus equating oppressors and oppressed,” UI grad Tamara Sakaji told the crowd.
Even more common is people ignoring the issues, as an incident at the beginning of the protest illustrated.
The protest coincided with families taking pictures of graduating UI seniors in caps and gowns on the Pentacrest. As the first speaker, Rahsin Mulk, was saying, “We are here today, because people in Sheik Jarrah [a neighborhood in East Jerusalem] are being driven out of their homes,” a man standing behind protesters said he wanted people to move out of the way so he could take a photo of his daughter next to the graduation-themed Herky statue.
Mulk explained that organizers had reserved the space and had a permit, and suggested the man come back after the protest.
“We’ve waited four freakin’ years for this,” the man shouted. After a little more back-and-forth, the man and his family left.
“We are here today, because people in Sheik Jarrah are being driven out of their home,” Mulk said as he resumed his speech. “We are here today because people like this don’t care.”
Saturday was also the annual observation of the Nakba. The word, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic, is the Palestinian name for the fighting that followed the declaration of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948, in particular the attacks on their communities by Israeli paramilitary groups. The violence resulted in at least 750,000 Palestinians being forced to flee their homes, becoming refugees or going into exile, and the destruction of an estimated 500 towns and villages where they had lived.
Speakers on Saturday said the Nakba is still ongoing.
“This is what the Palestinian people are experiencing every moment from 1948 all the way till today,” John Dabeet, a professor at Muscatine Community College and vice president of the U.S. Palestinian Council, said. “This is what we are seeing in Sheik Jarrah right now. Another catastrophe, another Nakba, and we must stop that.”
Dabeet said his mother was separated from her family during the Nakba in 1948, and wasn’t allowed by Israeli authorities to return to see her mother until 1967. Sakaji told the crowd the villages where her grandparents lived in 1948 were among the hundreds that were destroyed.
“I’m a Palestinian exile and prohibited from ever visiting my homeland,” she said.
Speakers also addressed U.S. support for Israel.
“Indigenous people everywhere have unwavering solidarity with Palestinians, as they know all too well the violence that invader states have and are inflicting on first nations around the world,” Sikowis (Christine Nobiss), who is Plains Cree/Saulteaux of the George Gordon First Nation and the founder of the Great Plains Action Society, said. “For this reason, I felt the very deep need to be here to point out that the U.S. is a colonizing force and an invader state that genocided the indigenous peoples here. And they are now funding the same actions in places such as Palestine.”
According to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published in November 2020, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.” Between 1946 and 2018, the U.S. provided approximately $236 billion in foreign aid to Israel, and as CRS noted, almost all U.S. foreign assistance to Israel in recent years has been for military purposes. Currently, the U.S. is providing Israel with $3.8 billion in military aid, as part of a 10-year aid deal worth $38 billion, approved by Congress and the Obama administration in 2016.
“My family, who came to the United States to escape the Israeli occupation, are now forced to fund the terror they were running from in the first place,” Serena Qamhieh said on Saturday.
“We help pay for the planes that raid Gaza at night, we help pay for the bombs and the tanks and the guns and bullets,” she added. “Well, we want our money back. We don’t want to build bombs, we want health care.”
There is a long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in American politics, and providing aid to the country has typically attracted few questions from members of Congress or the executive branch. But as the CRS noted in its report, “some Democrats from within the progressive wing of the party have become more vocal about conditioning, repurposing, or even cutting foreign aid to Israel.”
There has also been a change at the state level for Democrats, Newman Abuissa pointed out. In 2018, the Iowa Democratic Party added a section on Israel and Palestine to its platform. The section calls for “equal human rights/health/welfare for Palestinians and Israelis” and “right of return/just compensation for displaced Palestinians,” as well as expressing support for “Palestinian statehood/UN membership” and “escrowing aid to Israel until Israel recognizes Palestine at 1966 borders.”
Abuissa was a leader of the committee that drafted that section of the platform, and told the crowd that it required years of work to overcome opposition to adding language supportive of Palestinians. And even though it is now part of the platform, Abuissa said Iowa Democratic officials aren’t necessarily interested in taking any steps to act on it.
“We need to put pressure on them, as the grassroots,” he said.
Other speakers also stressed the importance of contacting elected officials.
“Reach out to your representatives today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow,” Sakaji said. “Speak out.” She also encouraged everyone gathered for the protest to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that is seeking to use economic pressure to force Israel to change its policies towards the Palestinians.
Even more basic is the need for people to acknowledge the existence of the Palestinians and the conditions in which they are living 73 years after the founding of Israel.
“The powers of the world work tirelessly to silence the voice of the oppressed,” Mulk said at the beginning of the protest. “We are here, because we will amplify those voices, we will not be silenced.”
The 45-minute event ended the way it began, with the crowd chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”