Richmond community members, students rally in support of Palestine

Protestors marching down Broad St. Photo by Bilan Osman.

Jack Glagola, Contributing Writer

Selna Shi, News Editor

Andrew Kerley, Audience Editor

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” protesters shouted, as they marched from Monroe Park to the intersection of Broad Street and Allen Street. 

American Muslims for Palestine organized the rally. AMP is a nonprofit organization which seeks to “educate the public about the just cause of Palestine and the rights of self-determination, liberty and justice,” according to its website.

Protesters chanted “We don’t want two states, we want 48,” referring to the 1948 partition of Palestine by United Nations resolution into two different states, following a period of conflict: one for Palestinian Arabs and the other for Jews. The resolution also internationalized the city of Jerusalem. 

The Jewish state declared independence as Israel in 1948 and has since expanded its territory to include Jerusalem and parts of the Arab state, according to the U.N. The current phase of conflict between Israel and Palestine has been happening since 1948 when Israel declared independence from the British two-state Mandate.

Adherents of Zionism, which Britannica defines as a Jewish nationalist movement to establish a homeland for the Jewish people, actively worked with the British government to establish the Mandate, according to the U.N. The Mandate did not take into account the indigenous people of Palestine, according to the U.N. 

The tipping point of the present conflict came on Oct. 8 when the Palestinian fighter group, Hamas, launched an attack on Israel from the blockaded Gaza Strip, according to the U.N.

Since then, the Israeli government has dropped 6,000 bombs on the Gaza Strip, an area with civilian neighborhoods, for six consecutive days, according to Al Jazeera. 

Palestine does not have an official military, according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding. The Israeli Defence Force is Israel’s military force. 

Israeli occupation forces have killed over 1,400 Palestinians and injured 6,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, according to the U.N. The U.N. does not have an exact number on how many Israeli deaths there are.

Sereen Haddad, a speaker at the rally and VCU student, said her dad has been scanning WhatsApp each hour of the day to make sure their family in Gaza are still alive. 

Haddad said her father’s uncle was given five minutes from an automated call from the Israeli military to leave the family home before it gets destroyed. 

“A house with 80 years of memories, you get five minutes to evacuate, five minutes to take everything you own your entire life, five generations, pack it in a box and go,” Haddad said. 

Haddad said she and her siblings were told stories of their grandparents’ house in Gaza, lined with fig trees. Two days ago, the house was bombed by the Israeli military.

“My dad never got to take me or any of my siblings to go to this house. We haven’t had it in us to tell our grandparents that the house was leveled. They don’t know. Because I genuinely think it would break their hearts to know that,” Haddad said.

Haddad recalled a text her family received from her relatives in Gaza, after Israel cut off water, food and electricity. It read: “We still have life but we don’t know for how long.” 

“We are just heartbroken for every family in Gaza right now,” Haddad said. “They need help. Now more than ever, and they’ve always needed help. America’s silence is deafening.”

Haddad said being Palestinian in the United States can feel small but also empowering.

“When you’re surrounded by people who do understand you — like the protests, for example, on Sunday — I think that was one of the moments in my life where I felt the most empowered,” Haddad said. “I felt a really strong sense of community.”

Haddad said that people are now realizing how much of a struggle Palestinians go through and hopes that more people will in the future.

“It’s unfortunate because it really has been in front of everybody’s eyes this entire time, but the past ten days have definitely been a little bit more of an experience for people to be able to really understand,” Haddad said. “People have been more interested to know what’s going on.”

Haddad said that people should not be afraid to learn about, share and advocate for the Palestinian cause.

“Genuinely, I think the number one thing that helps us as Palestinian people is raising your voice, amplifying your voice, just really trying to end the Palestinian struggle once and for all,” Haddad said. “I think if we all really come together, this is what’s gonna help us reach our end goal, truly.”

The Israeli government ordered 1.1 million Gazans to leave northern Gaza within 24 hours last Friday, according to the U.N. The U.N. is calling for Israel to rescind the evacuation order and warns of “mass ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians. 

The U.S. has provided Israel $158 billion aid in total since 1946 in military assistance and missile defense funding, according to Congressional Research Service.

Zaid Mahdawi, president of the Richmond chapter of AMP and an organizer of the rally, said he advocates for Palestine because of his family’s history as Palestinian refugees.

“When living here and going through that as a generational refugee makes you kind of feel that you must stand against all forms of oppression, whether it’s for your own people, or for anybody else, but it does hit home more for your own people,” Mahdawi said.

Mahdawi said he first became involved in advocating for Palestine after visiting the country.

“I literally saw the apartheid with my own eyes. I came back and I felt obligated to stand up for what’s right, and I felt responsible and complicit for a little bit of it,” Mahdawi said.

With regards to the future of the movement, Mahdawi said he is certain people will come to understand Palestinians’ struggle.

“Do I have hope? I have something beyond hope — I have certainty, 100% certainty that whether it’s our generation or the next generation, the apartheid and occupation will stop,” Mahdawi said.

Nancy Wein, an at-large coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace and grassroots organizer, said the situation in Palestine is at its worst since 1948. 

“The only thing that was good about what came out today was we’re getting the word out and we’re forced to try to tell the truth about what’s happening,” Wein said.

Wein said that Israel’s actions and status as a “Jewish state” are not what Judaism is supposed to be about.

“I cannot tell you in strong enough terms how horrified I am that they are trying to use Judaism in a way that it shouldn’t be applied. This conflict is not religious,” Wein said.

Some names have been omitted due to instances of doxxing, a form of online harassment where individuals’ personal information is made public without their consent. Students supporting Palestine were doxxed at Harvard University last week, according to The Crimson.

Abel, a community organizer in Richmond who is also Jewish, said it is important that young Jewish people condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza.

“This is a crime on the level of something like apartheid in South Africa, and we have to strongly and politically condemn this if we’re going to have any sort of moral or ethical ability to advocate for the oppressed in this country,” he said.

He said that there is a clear aggressor in the current situation — the Israeli occupation — and that people need to speak out against it.

“We have to basically say that ‘we’re not going to cover for you,’ that we’re going to put pressure not only on the political institutions of this country, to forcefully come out against apartheid and genocide, but hit the streets so that we can express our own personal power as the people, as the masses,” Abel said.

VCU president Michael Rao sent an email to all students condemning Hamas’ attack and offering support to students.

“The savage, barbaric assaults committed by Hamas against Israeli civilians, including children, have no place in our world. These terrorist attacks have killed more than 1,000 people, including entire families who were murdered in their homes,” Rao stated.

The wording of the email has led to students speaking out against Rao’s statement. VCU and VCU Qatar community members created a petition in response to the email, accompanied by an open letter to Rao and the VCU community. The petition currently has 938 signatures by the time of this article’s publication.

“Your letter risks dividing the VCU community and alienates Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Israeli, and Jewish voices for peace, among others. It stands against shared values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging and threatens the integrity of the inclusive community we all strive to create,” the letter stated.

Rao met with student representatives from Muslim Student Association, Hillel at VCU, Palestinian Student Organization, Black Muslim Collective, and Jewish Life and issued a second statement.

“First, I reiterated what I have said many times this week: that it remains heartbreaking that innocent civilians – Israeli, Palestinian, American and many other nationalities – have been killed, injured and had their homes and communities destroyed,” Rao stated.

An anonymous Muslim protester said the protest was necessary after Rao’s malicious comments and use of the word “barbaric” in his email.

“This was necessary for it to happen in his city and on his campus so he can know that people at VCU were deeply offended by his support for Israel, his blatant Zionism and Islamophobia,” the protester said. 

While the protester does not have connections to Palestine, she said she stands with Palestinians because “it’s a Muslim country” and that is a Black and Brown issue as well. 

Bilal Quraishi, Muslim Life Director at VCU, was not satisfied with Rao’s follow-up. He said himself and other Muslim community leaders will be meeting with the president for a second time on Tuesday to demand proper race sensitivity training for administrators.

“For someone at the level of president of a university to use language like that [savage, barbaric], it’s so miscalculated,” Quraishi said. “You feel dehumanized, like all this talk about diversity and inclusion and ‘we love our Muslim brothers and sisters, our community,’ it just feels like empty words.”

Quraishi said the Islamophobia currently being spread is the “worst it’s been since 9/11.” 

“Being a Muslim in America is really tough,” Quraishi said. “We feel like we have a responsibility to help the oppressed people here, to build community and to spread peace and love. We get hampered by all these different things happening in the world and we have to prove ourselves, again and again, that we’re just normal humans.”

Correction: A previous version of this article did not include as much background on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and included a misleading quote about President Rao’s statement.

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