The Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) chapter at the University of Michigan constructed a 36-foot long, eight-foot tall “apartheid wall” to represent the current Israeli separation wall that stretches over 400 miles in the West Bank. SAFE members stood in front of their version of the wall at the Diag on Thursday to share narratives from Palestinian refugees with attendees and passersby.
The separation wall was authorized by the Israeli government in June 2002 and includes electric fences, trenches and security patrols. Since it was first built, the wall has faced international criticism from the United Nations because it illegally annexes some of the most fertile lands and water sources in the West Bank.
SAFE’s wall featured paintings depicting the treatment of the more than 5 million Palestinian refugees and displayed facts about the refugees enclosed within the wall. Painted along the wall’s surface read “1.6 million Palestinians live under military blockade”, as well as other information: nearly two-thirds of those in poverty and 1.4 million of those residing in the 140-square mile Gaza strip struggle with food insecurity.
LSA sophomore Bilal Irfan, SAFE board member and LSA Student Government president, said the event’s goal was to bring light to Palestinian suffering under apartheid, a term Irfan said is accepted by the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to describe the crimes committed by Israel authorities. Irfan said the narratives SAFE highlighted at the event come from Palestinians and allies.
“(The details about refugees) are a mix of stories … that have been widely published and personal narratives from Palestinian members and allies that have been to Palestine,” Irfan said. “We’re trying to bring light to all of these stories of Palestinians within the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.”
A SAFE member, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the Israeli government and will be referred to as Kathryn, said the wall is not a protective measure or border marker but rather an apartheid wall. Kathryn said based on many stories from refugees, the wall sits just meters away from homes, shops and schools, directly affecting Palestinian people.
“It is an apartheid wall and actively contributes to the systems of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and forced displacement that harms Palestinians every single day,” Kathryn said. “(The wall) separates family members from one another, children from their schools, men and women from their jobs and the sick from the nearest hospitals.”
Tensions arose midway through the demonstration, when approximately 20 students holding Israeli flags interrupted and began to shout at the speakers. Some of the counter-protesters began singing the Israeli national anthem, and others spat at the feet of SAFE members in attendance.
“You guys are uneducated,” one counter-protester yelled. The group then stood atop the Diag benches and gave thumbs-downs to the speakers and attendees.
The counter protestors in attendance declined to interview with The Michigan Daily.
LSA sophomore Maria Wajahat, SAFE finance director and LSA Student Government vice president, said SAFE is standing in solidarity with the refugees in Palestine. Wajahat said this event called attention to violence in Israel and Palestine.
“The main purpose of tonight’s event is education about the apartheid wall,” Wajahat said. “This has been going on for a really long time, and it’s just going to continue.”
Irfan said there are groups on campus that don’t support Palestine activism and have gone out of their way to silence Palestinian voices. He referenced incidents where pro-Palestinian voices on campus have been targetted, like in 2019 when an anonymous website called Canary Mission published political dossiers of students, faculty and organizations claiming to document “people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.”
“Unfortunately (the groups that don’t support Palestine) have been able to blacklist (Palestinian) allies and activists on this campus,” Irfan said. “SAFE has been advocating for divestment for almost two decades now for the University, but the Board of Regents has persistently refused to do that.”
One such incident occured in November 2017, when the Central Student Government made history by passing the #UMDivest resolution, which called for the University’s Board of Regents to investigate three companies operating in Israel allegedly involved in human rights violations against Palestinians. Ultimately, the majority of regents at the time rejected the resolution, citing a commitment to “shield the endowment from political pressures.”
More recently in 2021, CSG released a statement in support of Palestine after reports of over 30 Palestinians had died due to Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City. Drawing both support and criticism from the campus community, the statement condemned the Israeli forces and recognized anti-Palestine sentiments on campus.
In between speakers, SAFE organized a Dabke line, which is a Palestinian folk dance that translates to “stamping of the feet.” The organizers then led a prayer session for community members to come together and show their support for Palestine.
Another SAFE member, who also asked to remain anonymous and will be referred to as Abigail, said even though only a few refugee stories were shared, they exemplified the struggles of generations of Palestinians. The member said Palestinians are living in conditions as strangers in their own homes.
“These are the conditions that breed resistance,” the member said. “This should push us to join together and find any way to support the Palestinian cause.”
Daily Staff Reporter Sejal Patil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the United Nations as one of the governing bodies that accept the word ‘apartheid’ to describe the crimes committed by Israel authorities. This article has been updated to include Amnesty International in its place.