In light of the escalating conflict in the Middle East this week, two student groups held events on the Diag to promote peace and raise awareness about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Thursday.
Following the killing of Ahmed al-Jabari — the military commander of Hamas, a militant organization that governs the Gaza Strip and is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government — by an Israeli airstrike Wednesday, the conflict has raised tensions in the region and grabbed the attention of students at the University.
Artists for Israel, a group of professional, New York-based artists who travel across the United States painting in support of Israel, spray-painted four canvasses on the Diag in an effort to encourage students to express their political views through art.
Later in the day, after the artists packed up their canvasses, a collection of pro-Palestinian demonstrators congregated on the steps of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library to hold a peaceful protest against the current violence in the Middle East.
LSA sophomore Jeremy Borison — a board member of American Movement for Israel, the largest pro-Israel group on campus — helped organize the Spray Painting for Israel event, which was scheduled to occur two weeks ago but was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy.
Borison said though the spray-painting event was not planned in response to the recent events in Israel and the Gaza Strip, he believes more students stopped by to paint the canvasses as a result.
“Both sides are suffering; both sides are angry,” Borison said. “We think this is a great way — even though it’s from the pro-Israel group and can seem one-sided — we think this is a great way for people to express themselves, just show their emotions.”
Though many individuals on campus have conflicting views on the issue, Borison said the murals provided a way for both sides to come together and express themselves in a nonviolent way.
“You know we all have different opinions, we all have our different views, but we really want to promote peace and promote unity on our campus in the future,” he said.
LSA junior Molly Rosen, the president of I-Lead, a pro-Israeli group on campus, said the graffiti artists represented a side of Israel not typically portrayed by the media, adding she believes the messages they expressed were extremely moving.
“I think Israel is often associated with war and violence, and there’s so much more to that than just what you see in the news,” Rosen said. “I think this is an important example of that.”
During the subsequent protest, about 50 students held signs and Palestinian flags on the steps of the library, while others read poems and told personal stories of friends and family living in the Gaza Strip. Shortly after 5 p.m., the group held a candlelight vigil, circling around a collection of candles that spelled out “Gaza,” where the students prayed and stood in silence.
One student painted the Palestinian flag on the cheeks and hands of attendees.
LSA junior Suha Najjar said she woke up Thursday morning to distressing Facebook statuses from her sister, who lives in Gaza with her mother and brothers.
“She said … ‘I’m really scared, I’ve never been in a war, may God protect us. Goodbye everybody you may not see me again.’ And she’s 12 years old,” Najjar told the crowd of about 200 people that gathered to observe the events.
“Israelis bring their toys to Gaza and play with us the hard way,” LSA junior Farah Erzouki said, reading from a poem entitled “To My Unborn Son,” which her friend Nader Elkhuzunder, a student currently living in Gaza, sent to her.
LSA senior Joe Varilone — a member of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, the University affiliate of the national organization Students for Justice in Palestine — said the demonstrators wanted to make the point that violence and bombings will ultimately compound the problems between Israel and the Palestinians, not solve them.
“We don’t want a repeat of what happened in January of 2009 in which 1,400 Palestinians died,” Varilone said, referring to the three-week war between Israel and Hamas. “I think generally people (on campus) are in support of our message that violence and airstrikes aren’t going to solve the problems in the Middle East.”
LSA senior Ahmad Hasan, an executive board member of SAFE, gave an impassioned speech in which he said the mainstream media is ignoring the death of Ahmad Abudaqqa, a 13-year-old boy killed by Israeli forces. He said the boy’s death was a catalyst for the current fighting between the two groups, and he wanted to inform students about this event.
“In this particular incidence, the mainstream media is portraying, as usual, Israel as defending itself when, in reality, if we look at the actual facts on the ground, it always starts with an instance where a Palestinian civilian was killed,” Hasan said in an interview after the event.
During the event, protesters held signs that read “Casualties Should Not be Casual,” “Pillars of ‘Defense’ Kills Children,” and “Gaza Strip is Getting Bombed Obama Didn’t Say Shit.”
The language used on the signs led LSA sophomore Adam Molnar to spark a discussion with the group of demonstrators on the steps, but he eventually left the protest. Molnar said he didn’t understand why a self-proclaimed peaceful protest would hold signs with words such as “attack,” “ethnic cleansing,” “murder” or “bomb” written on them, which he believed was counterintuitive to what the goals of the group.
“Both sides have innocents killed, so instead of putting your effort into trying to get people to come to your side, why not put your effort to eliminate the sides and create one?” Molnar said.
LSA sophomore Will Schrier said he was glad that the students were willing to demonstrate their strong beliefs, but questioned the impact the protestors would have on the larger community.
“I would like to see how the demonstrations in the Diag could amount to something more, could have a more realizable impact,” Schrier said.