Student activists bring awareness to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Originally published by the Smoky Mountain News  

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on, students across the world and across Western North Carolina are organizing to bring awareness to their cause and express their feelings about the ongoing hostilities.

“Our protests aren’t as big as those in New York or other big cities, but being in a rural area like Jackson County doesn’t make our voices any less important or powerful,” said Sarah DeArmon, a WCU student and organizer for ANSWER Coalition. “Each one of us is being called to take a stand against injustice and fight on the right side of history, and we believe in doing our part.”

ANSWER Great Smoky Mountains is a local chapter of the national Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition. They describe their purpose as a responsibility “to connect the fight for social justice here at home to the fight against imperialism and occupation abroad.”

On Nov. 9 and 29 ANSWER organized a “Shut it Down for Palestine” rally. About 50 people attended including students, activist groups, professors and passersby.

The Gaza Strip is home to what some call the largest open-air prison in the world. Over 2 million Palestinians live in the area, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth. How it was created and how the Palestine-Israeli conflict began is a long story.

Initial conflict began in 1947 with the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. This plan divided the British-governed Palestine into Arab and Jewish states with the intention to promote self-governance and independence.

The State of Israel was created in May of 1948, sparking the first Arab-Israeli War. Though the war ended in 1949 with Israel’s victory, 750,000 Palestinians were displaced. The territory was divided into three parts: the State of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That was only the beginning of the violence between the Palestinian and Israeli people.

Israel preemptively attacked Egyptian and Syrian air forces in June of 1967. This began the Six-Day War which, at its end, resulted in Israel gaining territorial control over the Gaza Strip and other territories from Egypt.

Six years later the October War saw Egypt and Syria launch a surprise two-front attack on Israel to regain their lost territory. The conflict did not result in significant gains for anyone involved, however in 1979, representatives from Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Accords which ended their 30-year conflict.

Though the Camp David Accords improved some of the relations in the Middle East, the issues at large of the Palestinian people remained unresolved. In the late 1980s, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip revolted against the Israeli government.

The 1993 Oslo Accords assisted in resolving the conflict and was a pivotal milestone in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The accords aimed to propel Palestinians toward self-rule and set up a framework for Palestinian self-governance in the West Bank and Gaza.

Conflict began again in 2000 when Palestinians launched an attack on Israel over the remaining control the Israelis held on the Gaza strip. Palestine launched the second “intifada,” or uprising, which would last until 2005. In response, the Israeli government began construction of a barrier wall around the West Bank in 2002.

Not only did the wall create separation of Palestinians from what they consider to be their sacred homeland, but it also created grounds for separation within the Palestinian people. When Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, it dethroned the longtime majority party Fatah and created factionalism within the Gaza strip.

Violence within Palestinian territories set the stage for a military confrontation between the Israeli military and Hamas in 2014. Israel retaliated against Palestine in Gaza and the fight ended in late 2014 with a cease-fire deal. However, the cease fire came after 73 Israelis and 2,251 Palestinians had already been killed.

In response to an additional wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in 2015, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that Palestinians would no longer follow the Oslo Accords.

In 2018, Palestinians stormed the wall surrounding the Gaza strip. Israeli troops killed 183 Palestinians and wounded 6,000 others in response to what was an otherwise peaceful demonstration by Palestinians. To add salt to the wound, former President Donald J. Trump’s administration reversed the U.N. Relief and Works Agency that same year. This effectively cut off U.S. aid to Palestinian refugees.

War between Israel and Hamas reignited on Oct. 7, 2023, and continues to be the most significant escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in several decades. One day after the Oct. 7 attack, the Israeli cabinet formally declared war against Hamas and ordered a complete siege of Gaza. Since October, the two sides have traded rocket fire daily.

According to Gazan health officials, in the first month of fighting about 1,300 Israelis and 10,000 Palestinians were killed. More than 4,000 of those casualties were children. Israeli forces have encircled Gaza City, cutting it off from southern Gaza, meanwhile hundreds of thousands of civilians remain in the city unable to escape.

Gaza regularly runs low on water and fuel as Israel has limited the amount of aid that can enter. About 1.5 million displaced Gazans, nearly 70 percent of the territory’s population, are unable to leave and unable to continue to live in Gaza.

Given the history of violence and civilian casualties when Israel and Palestine have fought in the past, international groups such as the United Nations expressed concern for the safety of civilians in Israel. President Joe Biden made a strong statement of support for Israel.

The United States government has not changed its stance on the issue even as the death toll continues to climb. On Oct. 9, 2023, two days after the conflict reignited, the White House released a statement regarding the issue. “Our countries will support Israel in its efforts to defend itself and its people against such atrocities. We further emphasize that this is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage.”

The opinion of the U.S. government sparked controversy as well as support for Palestine from Americans.

Students play a particularly impactful role in raising awareness of the conflict. Local activist groups such as ANSWER and Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) are utilizing student involvement to spread the message of the issues Palestine is facing.

“There is a lot of arrogance even here in this country. We have to set that arrogance aside and humble ourselves. The Palestinian people… they are teaching us lessons of our own liberation. While things may not seem as bad for us, we are bound in chains right here. There is no liberation for some without liberation for all,” Claire Clark, a PSL organizer since 2020 said.

Historically, students have played a significant role in the anti-war movement. During the Vietnam War students marched in massive demonstrations from coast to coast. However, unlike the past, students are pressured now more than ever to professionalize and build their careers while still in school. Despite the challenges faced by modern youth, university campuses remain a place that gives space to dynamic youth leaders to learn and build a brighter future through leadership.

ANSWER and PSL spend their time mobilizing and hosting events that promote equality and activism. They organize and participate in demonstrations at universities like WCU, rallies and marches in Asheville like those in Pack Square Park and the march on the Pratt & Whitney plant with Reject Raytheon on Nov. 17. They also participate in educational events like teach-ins, film screenings and de-escalation training.

DeArmon started with ANSWER as a WCU student in 2020 and has been standing up for the rights of the oppressed since. Though Western North Carolina is geographically removed from the fight, she argues that there are still many reasons to organize on behalf of Palestinians.

“Solidarity means that we understand our liberation is entwined with the liberation of the Palestinians, and all oppressed people around the world,” DeArmon said. She argues that it all comes back home at some point, and each of us are complicit in some way or another, whether we like it or not.

DeArmon also recognizes the monetary conflict in having a war involving Israel and Palestine. According to BBC news, in 2020 alone, the US gave $3.8 billion in aid to Israel as part of a long-term commitment created under the Obama Administration. Almost all of the aid went toward military assistance.

Israel is and continues to be the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II as of March 2023.

A common theme of the rallies taking place around Western North Carolina is the importance of the working class in the conflict. DeArmon believes that the people of the working class have a responsibility to make their voices heard.

“We demand an end to U.S. backing of Israel, which is the primary reason the apartheid regime exists and is able to carry out the brutal slaughter of Palestinian people,” she said.

Others, however, hold a different view. During the Nov. 9 rally hosted by WCU student groups like the ANSWER Coalition, Palestinian Youth Movement and National Students for Justice in Palestine, there were several Israel supporters who presented counter arguments.

Though it was peaceful, a few shouted phrases from the sidelines like, “Some of you wouldn’t even have rights,” and “They would slaughter all of you.” Organizers did not directly respond to the comments.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on and all the while students work to bring awareness to the public. Their goal is an end to the conflict and peace for Palestine and Israel.

Beyond the divisiveness, one student who spoke at the rally believes that it isn’t about the ethnic, religious or national differences between Palestine and Israel at all.

“I am not Palestinian. I am not American,” he said. “I am rather a human being.”

Representatives from Digali’i, whose members appeared at the rally in support of Israel, did not respond to requests for comment on this story.