Standing at the steps of the state Capitol on Sunday, Michigan State University senior Omar Mahmoud’s thoughts turned to his Palestinian grandmother. “She was one of the 750,000 who were kicked out of their homes in 1948,” Mahmoud said, referring to the year Israel entered into statehood.
“She still stands with us today,” he said to applause from the crowd of hundreds who attended a Justice for Palestine rally.
Mahmoud, the vice president of Students United for Palestinian Rights chapter at Michigan State University, was born and raised in East Lansing, “but my roots go back to Palestine.”
Mahmoud accused Israel of “apartheid ethnic cleansing war crimes.”
Over the two-hour protest, Mahmoud and other speakers demanded that U.S. politicians call for a ceasefire in Gaza. At times, the crowd chanted, “Netanyahu you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide,” referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The gathering was just the latest and most visible example of local activism on behalf of the Palestinian people since Oct. 7, when the terrorist group Hamas attacked Israel.
On Friday, the MSU Muslim Studies Program hosted a virtual teach-in, “Understanding Palestinian Perspectives on Gaza.” One of the speakers was Waseem El-Rayes, an MSU political theory professor who hails from a family with “roots that go back to Gaza for 10 generations.”
“Right now, as we speak, I’m looking at the bombing of my town, where Israel has cut off all communication. I don’t know what’s happening to my 88-year-old uncle and his wife, who is like a mother to me,” El-Rayes said.
In several powerful moments during the 90-minute session, El-Rayes described the current bombardment of Gaza as “the annihilation of my past and future” and cited the United States’ support of Israel as “the language of the perfect victims and perfect villains.”
“Being a Palestinian from Gaza is an essential part of who I am, but I’m also a U.S. citizen,” he said. “My tax money pays for the bombs the U.S. ships to Israel. I voted for the politicians who have signed off on the leveling of my relatives. This is actually America’s war now. Without our support and weapons, this would not be happening.”
Stephen Gasteyer, an MSU sociology professor who has lived and conducted research in Gaza on-and-off since 1985, spoke at both events.
“I’ve had the privilege of joining Gazans as they thought about how to do the concept of community development in Gaza,” Gasteyer said, adding that development in any capacity was often difficult because the Israeli government frequently places restrictions on who could enter or leave the city and what could be brought in or out.
Now, these restrictions are being tightened. Gasteyer, whose work has included studies on water justice, said that most Gazans are now drinking water that is unfit for consumption.
“Water alone has been a problem, but you can add to that the reality of economic development,” Gasteyer said, citing Gaza’s 45% unemployment rate, which the United Nations says is among the highest in the world. He also pointed to Gaza’s high density of population.
Hiba Mukhal, a third-year law student at MSU and president of the Middle Eastern Student Law Association, declared her frustration “because we’re constantly having to prove that we, too, are human beings,”
She took a moment to offer some clarity on what Palestinian supporters hope to achieve. “When we say, ‘Free Palestine,’ it means open Gaza’s borders so that the 2.2 million people who live there can go out and live a normal life. It does not mean that I’m antisemitic. It’s just a call for self-determination, for dignity, for respect — because Palestinians deserve that, too,” Mukhal said.
These sentiments were echoed Sunday at the Capitol by a cast of speakers that included Abraham Aiyash, the first Arab American to serve as the Democratic majority leader in the Michigan House of Representatives; Sheikh Abdullah Waheed, a co-founder of the Miftaah Institute, an educational nonprofit organization in Warren; Nelson Brown, co-chair of the Peace Education Center of Greater Lansing, and Saba Saeed, vice president of the MSU Arab Culture Society.
Near the end of the rally, Saeed told the crowd she was “out of tears” for her people. Like her fellow speakers, she added that she was not satisfied with statements from President Joe Biden, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, MSU interim President Teresa Woodruff and others who she said have shied away from calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza strip.
As she spoke, Saeed looked down to the first several rows of steps leading up to the Capitol’s entrance, where dozens of children adorned in Palestinian flags and attire had congregated.
“It’s just disappointing that these kids know what’s up, but the grown people up there don’t,” she said, referring to the lawmakers who work out of the building that now served as a backdrop for her cause.
Thasin Sardar, a trustee with the Islamic Society of Greater Lansing, who helped organize the rally, said the turnout exceeded expectations, which he said was 300 people.
“We wanted to get our lawmakers’ attention,” he said, adding that while it was an encouraging turnout, “we still have a long way to go in educating the people.”
In his quest to increase public awareness surrounding the Palestinian struggle, Sardar noted that the younger generations seem to “be able to see through it more clearly on the Palestinian side.”
“If there was a little bit of activism on campuses before, that has expanded now. There are many more allies. We’ve had social Democrats come and support these rallies, we’ve had Black Lives Matter members supporting us across the country, as well as other student groups,” he said.
Mukhal and Mahmoud are key contributors to that youth movement in Lansing.
“As a Muslim, as a Palestinian, as an American, I value every single individual human life, because no human life should be cut short,” Mukhal said. “It’s so disheartening I can’t even formulate the words to express how I’m feeling. So, I want to remind everyone to be extra kind to one another, because an act of kindness goes a long way. And I hope one day the children of Gaza can wake up to a world of peace.”
Their elders agree.
“We all want peace, I want to reiterate that,” El-Rayes added. “But peace that is not based on freedom and equality is just subjugation. Whatever happens, going back to the status quo is not going to be possible. This is the moment where we ceasefire and find a political solution, because there is no military solution.”
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