Tampa activists stand with Palestinians at USF, Temple Terrace and downtown

11/19/12 Janelle Irwin
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The death toll in Gaza has reached at least 100 after a weekend of continued violence. More than 20 USF students protested the conflict in Palestine silently today at the Marshall Center on the school's Tampa campus following a weekend of other demonstrations across the city.

The Israeli military, or IDF, has increased bombing in Gaza claiming they are defending themselves against rocket fire from the Gaza strip and targeting Hamas militants. One reason is rocket fire into Israel has taken the lives of three Israelis. But activists sympathetic to Palestinians disagree. Haneen Ali is a Palestinian-American with the USF group Students for Justice in Palestine. She said during a protest today the threat to Israel is minimal because the balance of power favors the Jewish state.

“You have Israel, the fourth most powerful military in the world, against a defenseless population. Hamas, they barely have a – they don't have any armored weapons – well they have their rockets, but they are completely non-established if you're comparing them to Israel and nuclear power.”

Israeli bombs have hit densely populated civilian areas. About half of those killed in the Gaza Strip have been women and children. Yesterday a missile hit a home, killing 11 civilians. Yesterday and today a missile also hit a building where members of the media are based. According to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, one of its top militants was killed in today’s blast. Ahmad Saadaldin helped organize the Students for Justice in Palestine protest today. He worries the bombings could have been intentional acts to keep operations in the Palestinian region under raps.

“I feel like they don't want anyone in the world to really know what's going on there. So, when you attack the media you're discouraging others because they're fearing for the safety of their lives now. So, if they can't get into Gaza, who's going to tell the truth?”

Students for Justice in Palestine's Haneen Ali also helped organize another demonstration. It drew more than 175 activists to a street side protest in Temple Terrace on Saturday. She said the group didn't chant during the protests, but instead waved signs calling attention to the fact that it isn't just Muslims being affected by the violence.

“We always try to strategize in a way that we're going to relate our point to people in a way that they will understand it because an occupation is outside of the normal frame of reference here in the United States. So in order for us to kind of relate better to people, we need to speak in a language that they will understand and people knowing that there are Christians there kind of fights the misconception that Palestinians are only Muslims which, that's not true; there are Jewish Palestinians, there are Christian Palestinians as well. So, it is important for us to make it a point that this isn't a religious issue.”

Even before the two USF-student-led demonstrations, Neveen El-Nawawy held a large Palestinian flag during a separate vigil at downtown Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Friday. El-Nawawy is the daughter of a Palestinian refugee.

“It’s devastating to Gaza, it’s people and Palestinians who are refugeed outside because we feel very limited. We cannot reach there, we cannot enter there and it’s going to be unlivable by 2050.”

The vigil was a way for the group to pay respects to those who have lost their lives, but also to raise awareness of the escalating violence. The group of about a dozen activists joked as they made signs calling for Palestinian freedom that most Americans are uneducated about the issue. Not far away from them Chris Scarnelli sat on a bench watching weekend activity unfolding at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. They were right. Scarnelli didn’t know much about the issue, but enough to know people were dying.

“I just wish everybody would live in peace….why can’t we all get along? Lack of communication somewhere.”

One of the peace activists, Amanda Cruz, traveled to Palestine last summer. While there she also went to a predominantly Jewish area of Jerusalem. Cruz said she doesn’t just want to raise awareness about Palestinian suffering to U.S. citizens, but to Israelis as well.

“Many of them don’t know outside of the walls and they believe that there are Palestinians outside of these walls within close proximity that can do things to hurt them, but in reality the Palestinians are very far away from them. But it’s this idea, they don’t know, it’s unseen to them.”

Cruz said she saw refugee camps in Palestinian territories where people are permanently displaced without a country to call home. Others she saw bullied and harassed by Israeli military.

“People, every Friday, they have demonstrations – peaceful demonstrations – where they go out and they protest against the IDF and the IDF will throw – I don’t know how you call them – basically gas bombs over to people. The people have nothing mind you. They just have flags and their voices and they’re protesting for change and they will throw these things over and the guy went with me and we picked up some that had been – they were cold and stuff- and he was like, ‘this is made in Pennsylvania, I recognize this.’”

Last week the U.S. defended the attacks on Gaza during an emergency UN hearing. Steve Gentile, a member of Occupy Tampa who helped organize Friday's vigil thinks the U.S. supports Israel too much, including financially.

“The U.S. needs to divest in from supporting Israel. We give $3 billion a year out of U.S. tax dollars to support them, so I guess that’s where I would start.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn issued a statement expressing his concerns for Tampa's sister city Ashdod, Israel. At the opening of a seasonal outdoor ice rink in the park just feet from the Palestine vigil, Buckhorn said even though Israel is protecting their citizens he’s concerned for both Palestinians and Israelis.

“I mean, I don’t think in either case that the response was necessarily warranted because you’re going to have a lot of innocent civilians that are going to be hurt, you’ll have property damage, you’ll have people that will be killed as a result of this on both the Israeli side and the Palestinian side. I don’t know who started it. I don’t know who fired the first shot, but very rarely is the escalation of violence the answer.”

The silent protest today at USF was part of a national emergency effort to raise awareness of the humanitarian violations occurring in Palestine as a result of Israeli military action and occupation. Egypt is leading efforts to negotiate a cease fire between the two groups. So far, some 500 Egyptian activists have entered Gaza to deliver medical supplies.

AP video of press conference with State Department

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