Women in traditional hijabs and abayas march up Wilmington Street, leading children by the hand. Palestinian flags wave in the breeze, flashes of bright red and green peeking through the crowd. A young woman, hoarse from shouting, leads chants through a loudspeaker: “The people demand ceasefire now!”
At protests in downtown Raleigh and Durham, thousands of people banded together to send a loud and unignorable message.
In the crowd, it becomes a roaring demand for action. But while the message at downtown Raleigh’s Moore Square Park is loud on October 29, it’s harder to shout, or even say, in day-to-day life.
“There’s so much stigma about standing up for it,” says 19-year-old Shay, who declined to give her last name. Like many people who support Palestine, she worries about being harassed or even attacked if she shares her views openly.
“I’ve gotten called a terrorist just for posting ‘Ceasefire now’ [online],” Shay says. “There are websites where they’ll track you and you can lose jobs.”
Shay’s friend Mai, a 21-year-old wearing a long black hijab, has experienced a similar spike in Islamophobia since the conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted about six weeks ago.
On October 7, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing more than 1,200 people in a brutal massacre and taking around 240 hostages, according to the Associated Press. Israeli military forces quickly retaliated, attacking Gaza with air strikes. Since then, more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.
“I’m in a group chat with other students from school, and they were talking about how they’re so afraid to be in their own house because their neighbors know they’re Muslim,” Mai says. “Every Muslim is afraid to leave their house, especially when you wear hijab and you’re voicing to the world that you believe in this religion.”
But speaking up isn’t really a choice for these young women. Mai, who is from Morocco, can’t stop thinking about the children in Gaza who are being killed: “What they’re doing right now, how scared they must be,” she says. Shay, who was born in Gaza, lost contact with family members who are still in the area around October 25, she says.
Shay still remembers the sounds of artillery and rocket fire from her childhood, when Israel launched a three-week siege on Gaza in 2008. She was only about four years old, but “I witnessed the atrocities,” she says, and “I know it’s just a lot worse now.”
“It just sucks how normalized it is,” Shay says. “When I tell my friends, they’re always like, ‘Oh, that’s just the Middle East.’ It’s an awful feeling, because over here, we’re just living our lives, while over there, they’re praying to survive.”
The American Narrative
With the history of conflict in the Middle East, “it wasn’t surprising something like this happened,” says Shay. Living in America, however, has made coping with the conflict even more difficult, since the United States is a long-standing supporter of Israel, even as the country’s leader, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, builds a government that looks increasingly authoritarian.
Mai spent two days struggling with her feelings before talking to her coworkers about the conflict, only to find out they support Israel, like many Americans, she says.
“It just sucks that I have to convince them that these lives are worth fighting for,” she adds.
“We have to convince them why we shouldn’t be killed while they’re convincing me why this is OK,” Shay adds, cutting in. “So many people are uneducated about the issue. The media has not shown our voice at all.”
That’s a common sentiment among protesters. One woman, Sarah, says “Fox and CNN will never show the truth,” referring to reports the major news outlets have made about death tolls, particularly estimates of the number of children who have been killed.
According to Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, more than 4,100 Palestinian children have been killed in the first four weeks of fighting. Nearly half of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants are under 18, and children account for 40 percent of those killed so far in the war, per the Associated Press.
Like many pro-Palestine activists, Sarah and her husband Ahmed want people to understand the history of the conflict. For Ahmed, the war in the Middle East feels like a “continuous bleeding wound,” he says.
It’s similar for another protester, a middle-aged man with a beard, who compared the eruption of hostilities to a volcano.
“Under the ground, when the lava is melting and cooking, it is going to eventually burst,” says the man, who asked to remain anonymous. “What the Palestinian people have been going through the last 75 years, they’ve been living under oppression.”
Fighting for Humanity
As deaths continue at an alarming rate, protesters have focused on drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Jewish and Muslim activists, among others, are demanding an immediate ceasefire and end to American tax dollars “funding genocide.”
“We are calling on [U.S.] Rep. [Valerie] Foushee and President [Joe] Biden to do everything in their power to implement a ceasefire,” says student rabbi Noah Rubin-Blose, a Durham local who is also a member of international nonprofit Jewish Voices for Peace. “To stop the genocide of Palestinians that is happening right now.”
Rubin-Blose was one of more than 50 Jewish protesters who blocked off Highway 147 during rush hour on November 2 in an effort to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians.
“It’s just so devastating what’s happening in Gaza right now,” he says. “I felt grief out there [at the November 2 demonstration]. But it was also really powerful to be together with people demanding a ceasefire and to be a part of this movement with people all over the world.”
“As Jewish people, we say ‘never again’ to genocide,” Rubin-Blose adds. “And we’re saying never again, for anyone. We’re saying ‘not in our name’ …. Every life is a whole world. If one life is taken, it’s as if a whole world has been destroyed. All life is sacred. That means Jewish life and that means Palestinian life. I don’t think that’s complicated. It should not be complicated.”
Like Muslims, Jewish people have also faced an increase in hate since the conflict started, says Rubin-Blose.
“We are seeing both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in response to these events. I know a lot of Jews and Muslims are feeling scared because of it. It’s not OK,” he says. “It’s really important for all of our community to stand against … all forms of oppression, together. That’s the only way we can get through this, is to be in solidarity with each other.”
Hundreds of thousands march on Washington
Zainab Baloch, a former candidate for the Raleigh City Council and activist with Emancipate NC, says she hopes the scale of recent protests will incentivize President Biden to listen to calls for a ceasefire. More than 300,000 people from across the country marched in Washington on Saturday, November 4, marking the largest Palestine solidarity protest in history, according to the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which helped organize the event.
Dana Alhasan, a North Carolina local who attended the D.C. protest, says the experience was rejuvenating. After weeks of physically and emotionally exhausting work, it was fortifying to see how many people supported Palestine and calls for a ceasefire, she says.
“I just felt so energized and hopeful and just ready to continue this work,” Alhasan says. During an impromptu stop outside the White House fence, the activist was surrounded by other young Palestinian men and women chanting in Arabic, she adds.
“I felt like I was back home … it was an incredible feeling of community. You [could] feel the solidarity and the love.”
Alhasan helped organize the transport of some 650 people from North Carolina to D.C. for the march. She and others employed about 15 buses—eight from Raleigh, three from Charlotte, two from Greensboro, one from Durham, and one from Rocky Mount, plus a van from Asheville.
“People really understood that this fight is not just local,” Alhasan says. “Every single U.S. administration has unequivocally supported Israel, giving almost $4 billion every year. In the same breath … we hear from our legislators that they don’t have money for housing, for improving education, to cancel student debt.
“People can see the clear hypocrisy. They understand that our government doesn’t represent the interests of the people. They don’t want their tax dollars to fund genocide.”
The trip to D.C. was the culmination of weeks of rallies around the Triangle, starting October 8. Each week, crowds grew, Alhasan says, from 700 that first week to a peak of about 5,000. Like other protesters, Alhasan was struck by the diversity of the crowd.
“You see people from all ages, all genders, all nationalities that are there fighting for Palestine,” she says. “It’s incredible—because people understand that it is not just a struggle for Palestine, but it’s a struggle for all oppressed people.”
Shay, too, has seen people from all walks of life join together in recent weeks to stand against violence and hate.
“I’ve been fighting for Palestine my whole life,” she says. “And something I noticed this past month is how many non-Palestinians came out, which was really nice. I saw people from all over, different ethnicities … different religions. We had Jews today, Christians. That really shows you that this isn’t a religious conflict.”