While the United States calls for a ceasefire to end the recent escalation of conflict between Israel and Palestine, Cornell and Ithaca area activists are pushing to end long-standing human rights violations against Palestinian people.
Condemning recent violence and commemorating Nakba Day, the beginning of Palestinian displacement on May 15, 1948, hundreds of Cornell students joined local organizers in rallies Saturday and Sunday on the Ithaca Commmons to call for freedom and safety for Palestinian people.
The Saturday march — meant to raise awareness of both the current conflict and long-standing issues — was organized by Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine, Cornell Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, the Cornell Asian Pacific Student Union and the Cornell Arab Student Association, alongside several Ithacan organizations and members of the Student Assembly.
Saturday’s rally and march began on Ho Plaza, where a crowd of about 200 protesters spanned from McGraw Tower to Willard Straight Hall. Seven speakers, including student organizers and a professor, took to the microphone in support of Palestinian rights.
The speakers drew connections between the Israeli treatment of Palestinians with other marginalized groups. Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, literatures in English, drew parallels to the U.S. and its treatment of Indigenous peoples, including the Cayuga Nation, and S.A. representative Joseph Mullen ’24 compared Israel’s actions to apartheid in South Africa.
Malak Abuhashim ’23 told attendees the story of her family, who were forced from their home in Yibna, Palestine, when the Israeli government permanently displaced much of its Palestinian population on June 4, 1948.
“My people deserve basic human rights: the right to live, the right to return home, the right to have access to clean water,” she said in the speech.
Today, Abuhashim’s family is split between Kuwait, the U.S. and Gaza — with her relatives who have left Palestine barred from returning. She has only communicated with her family in Palestine over the phone, and her family living in the U.S. sends them money for food and clothes.
After the speeches in Ho Plaza, protesters marched through Collegetown and to the Ithaca Commons, chanting “freedom for Palestine.”
“It really felt like one voice walking down from Ho Plaza into the Commons,” organizer and S.A. member Laila Abd Elmagid ’21 said after the event. “It was great to feel united.”
The first of four additional speeches was given by Aya Oulida, a sophomore at Ithaca High School, who spoke out against the violence that has prevented many Palestinians from celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. She said supporting Palestinians is a universal, humanitarian issue.
“Palestinians are being kicked out of their homes,” Oulida told The Sun. “Every single day their lives are at risk. They never know if they will wake up in their own homes again or if they will even wake up at all due to the bombings.”
According to Abd Elmagid, organizing for the Saturday event began Wednesday night, when she recruited fellow S.A. members — including Mullen, Claudia Leon ’23 and Moriah Adeghe ’21 — members of the co-sponsoring clubs and Ithaca activists to support the march and began promoting it through Instagram and Facebook. Max Greenberg ’21, a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine and Cornell Progressives, got the SJP and Ithaca organizations involved.
“We read a statement on Thursday in support of Palestine,” Mullen said. “We wanted to translate that into action.”
The Sunday rally took place entirely in the Commons, where speakers included Ithaca Jewish Voice For Peace organizer Beth Harris, Reverend Megan Castellan, local organizer Rayvon Kenyon, national co-director of a women-led anti-war organization Code Pink Ariel Gold ’04 and Ithaca High School students Oulida and Yasmeen Alass.
The speakers grieved the deaths of Palestinians, calling for justice and freedom for the Palestinian people. Alass, a Palestinian living in the United States, said she dreams of being able to return someday.
“My main goal was to let people know that this issue is not two-sided,” Alass said. “This is not an issue where you can stay unbiased.”
Several of the attendees drew similarities between the movement for racial justice in the United States and the violence against Palestinians.
“The most important piece that I think a lot of Americans miss is how interconnected we are. This is our opportunity to help our brothers and sisters across borders,” said Phoebe Brown, a protest attendee who is running for Ithaca Common Council as part of the Solidarity Slate.
More than 100 people attended Sunday’s rally, including Ithaca residents, Cornell students and Ithaca College students. While some, like Alass, have a long-standing personal connection to the issues of Palestinian human rights, others said they learned about the issue more recently as current violence has garnered attention on social media.
Organizers circulated a petition Sunday that demands that the U.S. Congress end military funding for Israel and support sanctions on Israel until it complies with international law.
“Not only do we need an immediate ceasefire, but we need an end to Israeli apartheid,” Gold said. “In reality, the only way that that’s going to be achieved is by ending the United States unquestioned support for Israel.”
Like Gold, other Ithaca Jewish Voice for Peace members who attended the protest said they wanted to send a broader message that some Jews are anti-Zionist through their presence at the event.
“A lot of people equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, which is not the case, because not every Jewish person is a Zionist,” said Ash Schimkus, an Ithaca College student.
After the protest ended, some attendees joined the weekly Ithaca rally for Black lives. Organizers of the Palestinian rights rally, including Harris and Gold, said they saw working with racial justice activists in Ithaca as an important way of furthering equity for all people.
Going forward at Cornell, Abuhashim and Mullen expressed the need to continue fighting for Palestinian rights, calling the weekend’s turnout encouraging and hoping to continue the momentum.
Mullen and Abuhashim both said they plan to organize a rally and march for Palestine every May 15, while also advocating for Cornell’s divestment from Israel in the S.A. In addition, Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine will host events to spread awareness throughout the fall 2021 semester, according to Abuhashim.
In interviews with the Sun, Greenberg and the S.A. members condemned the connections between Cornell and the Israel Defense Forces, including through Cornell Tech’s partnership with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, where some researchers develop military technologies used by the Israeli military, including within the occupied territories.
“These people that are dying. These people that are suffering. They’re humans too, just like us,” Abuhashim said. “They have emotions. They have lives to live. It’s not just a story.”