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Protesters in Washington, D.C., stood outside the White House on Thursday night to condemn U.S. backing of the recent Israeli airstrikes that have killed 19 Palestinians. A pro-Israeli group from George Washington University was on the other side of a barricade to show its support for the assault on Gaza.
The two groups played off each other. The students sang traditional Jewish songs and danced in circles. Most were smiling.
The critics of Israel’s actions, most of whom were independent of any single group, chanted “while you dance, children die.”
“I’m absolutely offended [by the celebration],” said protest organizer Adam Akkad. “The pro-Israeli side tonight is expressing their support for Israel while their country is killing children and the elderly.”
Civilians have died on both sides since the beginning of this surge in violence, which began six days ago when a 13-year-old Palestinian boy playing soccer near the border was hit and killed by gunfire from Israeli soldiers. After the incident, Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel, destroying houses and killing three Israelis on Thursday. Israel’s retaliation has included airstrikes as well as calling up troops for a possible ground invasion.
The GWU students defended Israel’s actions.
“Israel dropped leaflets before the attacks,” said Rich Dweck, “letting people know: ‘We’re going to bomb you, please leave.’
“The problem is that we’re dealing with people [Hamas] who don’t value human life.”
Another student interrupted the interview as he silenced the pro-Israel demonstrators.
“We may feel a little bit impotent because our brothers and sisters are thousands of miles away,” he said, wearing an Israeli flag as a cape and sitting on top of someone else’s shoulders, “but with Hashem we are connected above. We are completely unified. ... Hashem is the No. 1 protector of Israel!” Cheers and singing followed.
Gabriel Felder, organizer of the pro-Israel rally and a student at GWU, said that the event was about “showing solidarity with the United States government and the State Department,” which he said don’t get enough support.
The students insist that the only impediment to peace is the Palestinian agenda. When Israel reacts violently, they say, it is always for self-preservation.
“We’re supporting Israel’s right to defend itself,” said Tomer Canaan, also a student at GWU. “The Palestinian agenda is pushing and promoting hatred and terrorism in the territories. ... If Israelis and Palestinians were on equal levels militarily,” he said, “Israel would cease to exist because I believe that the Palestinians are a lot more violent than the Israelis.”
The Israeli-American alliance, he added, is positive from an economic point of view.
“Seventy-five percent of U.S. aid to Israel is coming back to buy American products,” he said, “so it’s stimulating the American economy.”
Akkad, a critic of the occupation, is frustrated with these arguments. They pretend, he said, that the conflict is between two free and independent nations.
“There is a distinction in dynamics,” he pointed out. “Israel is the occupier. Hamas is an organization that came out of resistance to the occupation. Hamas is a couple of decades old. Palestine has been occupied for over six decades. Hamas is a response to that and Israel continues to feed off of that.
“When Israel claims self-defense,” Akkad continued, “it doesn’t tell you that it is also occupying these people, that it has checkpoints between Palestinian villages, that it builds illegal settlements on Palestinian land. It doesn’t tell you any of that information.”
Akkad said he understands the motives behind Hamas rocket fire, especially after the killing of the 13-year-old boy.
“Do I think rocket fire is the smartest form of resistance to the occupation?” Akkad asked. “Probably not, but I won’t say that Palestinians don’t have the right to violently resist their oppressor. It’s basic international law.”
Akkad suspects that the attacks on Gazans are, in the end, driven by Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for re-election.
“We saw the same thing happen in 2008,” he said, referring to the Gaza Massacre. “Why? Because Benjamin Netanyahu wants votes. The election cycle in Israel is coming up and Benjamin Netanyahu needs a way to instill fear into his people, the fear of possible extinction so that they vote for him.
“The conclusion to draw here is that there’s an exchange,” he noted. “Benjamin Netanyahu wants votes; we have to bury pregnant women and children.”