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BU students with ties to Israel and Palestine share personal stories, frustrations amid more than 230 deaths in Gaza, 12 in Israel before cease-fire

Map of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan
A map of Israel (blue), Palestine’s Gaza Strip and West Bank territories (red), Jordan (green) and Lebanon (yellow). Several Boston University students voiced fear over the safety of their extended families and friends in Israel and Palestine in light of increased violence in the region. COURTESY OF JESÚS MARRERO SUÁREZ VIA OPENSTREETMAP

Israeli and Palestinian students at Boston University, and those with close ties to the region, have opened up about how the escalation of violence in the area before Friday morning’s cease-fire continues to have overwhelming personal effects.

Hamas — the Palestinian militant group that governs the Gaza strip and is viewed by Israel and much of the West, including the United States, as a terrorist organization — fired more than 3,300 imprecise missiles and rockets at populated cities and towns in Israel starting May 10, killing 12 civilians. 

Israel carried out repeated airstrikes on the Gaza strip — a densely populated Palestinian territory — destroying homes, refugee camps and medical facilities, among other infrastructure. The Palestinian Ministry of Health’s website reports 232 civilian deaths in the area as of Thursday in just over a week. 

Civilians in and around Israel had been protesting the forced evictions of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in the weeks leading up to the period of military intervention. 

Israeli police officers used rubber bullets, water cannons and stun grenades against demonstrators, injuring hundreds over the course of several days and causing concern in the U.S and the international community.

Israeli police measures used in the Al-Aqsa mosque on May 10 — which left around 300 Palestinians injured at one of the holiest sites for the Islamic faith — culminated in Hamas launching missiles from Gaza that same day.

Israel and Hamas declared a cease-fire Thursday evening after an 11-day period of violence, which is expected to end further military action for the time being. A Palestinian minister and top diplomat said, however, that the cease-fire is “not enough at all” to address “the core issue,” the Associated Press reported.

Though the history between Israel and Palestine is long, much of it follows the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Violence has oftentimes been constant, peaking especially during the 1948, 1967 and 2014 wars.

Afik Zaarur, a rising junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, was born in Israel and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and brothers when he was 3 years old. 

He said he usually makes annual visits to his extended family in the cities of Ashdod and Sderot in southern Israel, not far from the Gaza Strip border. 

“We get a lot of rockets,” Zaarur said. “When I was there in 2014, which wasn’t as bad as now, I had seven or eight rockets a day, and then we had to go to the bomb shelter.” 

Zaarur’s trip had coincided with the 2014 Gaza War, one of the more destructive periods in the region’s history. The war left 2,251 Palestinians dead, two-thirds of whom were civilians, and 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians dead. 

At one point, Zaarur’s family was outside at the house’s pool, he said, when a rocket landed about 100 feet away, setting fire to the fields of the surrounding agricultural area.

“It made me realize how my family’s constantly living in fear,” Zaarur said. “I hear it on the news and I hear it from my family, I hear that my grandma had to sleep in a bomb shelter for a month, then it’s scary, but I actually had to live it, and I think that made me realize how serious the situation is.”

Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, was born and raised in Connecticut by Palestinian parents before immigrating to Jordan at age 10.

The student said their mother’s side of the family resides in Silwad, a town in the West Bank — a region occupied by Israel with varying degrees of Palestinian autonomy — and their father’s extended family lives in Abu Ghosh, a town in West Jerusalem, as well as in Jordan. 

For them, they said pre-existing anxieties rise whenever violence against Palestinians increases. They said one example was during the 2014 Gaza War when they worried about the “looming threat” of harm to their extended family in the West Bank.

Israeli security forces killed 27 people as of Saturday evening in different towns within the West Bank since May 10, according to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The student added travel in and out of the West Bank is difficult for their family, as they hold only Palestinian Authority Passports — which do not allow for visa-free travel to most countries — and Israeli authorities’ regulation on travel generally complicates entry.

Given this, the student said they are constantly anxious over whether seeing family members in Israel and the West Bank will ever be a possibility. 

“It’s always been in our conscience. If you’re Arab, it’s always there, and if you’re Muslim too, it’s always there,” they said. “You just grow up with it.”

Zaruur said blanket statements that present Israel as a “colonial apartheid state” are often simplistic and invalidate the daily pain and trauma his family goes through.

“The people who are actually in the conflict don’t have as much of a say because of where they’ve taken this conflict to,” he said. “They made it this political right-and-wrong and left-and-right issue.”

Zaruur said he calls his family three times a day to make sure they are safe. His worry turns to frustration, he added, when those who are not from the area pass judgment based on an “infographic made by some white kid in Oberlin” rather than speaking to Israeli and Palestinian people.

“They have an option to learn about it and I don’t,” Zaarur said. “They get to choose when they get to talk about it, they get to choose when they want to think about it, but that’s constantly running through my head.”

The anonymous student said they are past anger and are instead frustrated at people’s “lack of consciousness” in terms of acknowledging “at its core, a very humanitarian issue.”

“Especially leftist liberals, I think there’s a huge dissonance in people’s minds, where for some reason this is an untouchable topic, and having an opinion on it is social suicide, is political suicide, when it’s not,” they said. 

Despite this, the student said they do feel somewhat hopeful about a recent change in the narrative that portrays Palestinians as “terrorists,” a transition they said is due in large part to social media and protests.

“I think it just needs this constant momentum to be kept up for a good while, and then I think we’ll see some sort of breakthrough soon,” they said.

Students for Justice in Palestine at BU released a statement on Instagram addressing the events in Palestine and past University actions. Mariam AlAdsani, a rising senior in CAS and the outreach coordinator for SJP, said the University is “complicit with Israeli oppression on Palestinians.” 

BU spokesperson Colin Riley declined to comment. 

The SJP statement and AlAdsani pointed to BU’s offering of a study abroad program in Haifa, Israel — a Palestinian city before 1948 — and to an instance 4 years ago in which the chief of BU’s Police Department, along with other state police officials, attended a counter-terrorism seminar led by Israeli government security forces. Officials from several other Massachusetts-based universities attended the seminar as of 2016 and 2017. 

The seminar is sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League — an international non-governmental organization that aims “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people” and address discrimination against all. It brings U.S. law enforcement executives to Israel to “study first-hand Israel’s tactics and strategies to combat terrorism.”

BUPD could not be reached to comment before the publishing of this article. 

AlAdsani said a dichotomy exists between what the University teaches and practices, creating the Center for Antiracist Research and condemning discrimination and violence in the past, and the fact that BU has yet to address the current situation in the Middle East. 

AlAdsani added she doesn’t think the Israeli government’s actions can be “justified in any way,” and if one were to remove the nouns “Palestine” and “Israel,” the world would be “grieving.”

“We call this what it is and as we see it,” AlAdsani said. “It’s colonialism and it’s apartheid, it’s ethnic cleansing and it’s the genocide of the Palestinians before our eyes, and this [is] not antisemitic at all.”

Executive board members of BU Students for Israel, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons due to a recent increase in antisemitism, wrote in an email they hope to be a place on campus that recognizes “the importance of unity and solidarity” between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, echoing their statement addressing the issue.

“Real people are suffering right now,” they wrote in the email. “Israelis and Palestinians alike are being killed. People who do not represent their governments.”

The e-board members said Islamophobic and antisemitic sentiments tend to follow when this distinction is not made and wrote it is disheartening to see many fellow students circulating posts on social media that add to the division between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

“Having arguments in comment sections of posts online will not help these people,” the students wrote.

Given many of the e-board members have close family or personal ties to Israel, the club added they are worried about the lives of their loved ones who are currently living in the region.

The statement writes that BUSI mourns the lives lost in Israeli and Palestinian territories through the 11-day period, and encourages students to responsibly learn more about the issue to open respectful and compassionate dialogue.

Sima Bou Jawde is a rising second-year master’s student in the School of Public Health from Beirut, Lebanon.

She said she worked with Syrian and Palestinian refugees for seven years, teaching them English, Arabic and math, adding she has always felt close to the Palestinian cause.

She said she’s had “friends literally message [her] that they don’t know when they are going to die because they’re being brutally bombed.”

Bou Jawde said she doesn’t expect the University to issue a statement, and she emphasized the importance of uplifting Palestinian and Jewish voices during this time.

“I don’t know if we should be more vocal, I don’t know what else to be vocal about,” she said. “This war, this genocide, is literally being live-tweeted, so I’m not quite sure what else to do and say for the administration to take a stand.”

AlAdsani said a potential statement from the administration would be “a band-aid on an open wound” given the University’s past actions.

Members of BUSI’s e-board wrote “it is not the administration’s job to take a position on such a historic and difficult conflict,” but that any message from the University should be about “peace, and finding common ground.”

Bou Jawde said though the history in the region is complex, current events are not. She added this is ultimately not a religious issue, but a humanitarian one, citing instances of Palestinian people being forced from their homes. 

As far as what students can do to help, Bou Jawde said she urges people to stay informed on what’s happening in Palestine and Israel, especially as the West plays an important role in the region. 

“Look at the videos, look at the pictures,” she said. “Do not shy away from looking at the atrocities, because they are happening.”

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