Hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters rally in the rain in DC to mark a painful present and past

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of protesters rallied within sight of the U.S. Capitol, chanting pro-Palestinian slogans and voicing criticism of the Israeli and American governments as they marked a painful present — the war in Gaza — and past — the exodus of some 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from what is now Israel when the state was created in 1948.

About 400 demonstrators braved steady rains to rally on the National Mall on the 76th anniversary of what is called the Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe. In January, thousands of pro-Palestinian activists had gathered in the nation's capital in one of the larger protests in recent memory.

There were calls in support of Palestinian rights and an immediate end to Israeli military operations in Gaza. “No peace on stolen land” and “End the killings, stop the crime/Israel out of Palestine,” echoed through the crowd.

Protesters also focused their anger on President Joe Biden, whom they accuse of feigning concern over the death toll in Gaza.

“Biden Biden, you will see/genocide’s your legacy,” they said. The Democratic president was in Atlanta on Saturday.

Reem Lababdi, a George Washington University sophomore who said she was pepper-sprayed by police last week when they broke up an on-campus protest encampment, acknowledged that the rain seemed to hold down the numbers.

"I’m proud of every single person who turned out in this weather to speak their minds and send their message,” she said.

This year’s commemoration was fueled by anger over the ongoing siege of Gaza. The latest Israel-Hamas war began when Hamas and other militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking an additional 250 hostage. Palestinian militants still hold about 100 captives, and Israel’s military has killed more than 35,000 people in Gaza, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Speaker Osama Abuirshad, executive director of American Muslims for Palestine, gestured at the Capitol building dome behind him.

“This Congress does not speak for us. This Congress does not represent the will of the people,” he said. “We're paying for the bombs. We're paying for the F-16s and F-35s. And then we do the poor Palestinians a favor and send some food.”

Speakers also expressed anger over the violent crackdown on multiple pro-Palestinian protest camps at universities across the country. In recent weeks, long-term encampments have been broken up by police at more than 60 schools; just under 3,000 protesters have been arrested.

“The students are the conscience of America,” said Abuirshad, who compared the university demonstrations to earlier protest movements against the Vietnam War and apartheid-era South Africa. “That's why the authorities are working so hard to silence them.”

In addition to pressing Israel and the Biden administration for an immediate end to hostilities in Gaza, activists have long pushed for the right of return for Palestinian refugees — an Israeli red line in decades of start-and-stop negotiations.

After the Arab-Israeli war that followed Israel's establishment, Israel refused to allow them to return because it would have resulted in a Palestinian majority within Israel's borders. Instead, they became a seemingly permanent refugee community that now numbers some 6 million, with most living in slum-like urban refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In Gaza, the refugees and their descendants make up around three-quarters of the population.

At several points during the rally and subsequent march, protesters performed a call-and-response, with the speaker naming different cities in Israel and the occupied territories. The response: “raageh!” — Arabic for “I'm returning!”

The demonstrators marched for several blocks on Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues, with police cars closing the streets ahead of them. One lone counter-protester, waving an Israeli flag, attempted to march near the front of the procession. At one point, one of the demonstrators snatched his flag and ran away.

With tensions rising, members of the protesters' “safety team” formed a tight phalanx around the man, both to impede his progress and protect him from hot-heads in the crowd. The standoff was broken when a police officer intervened, led the man away and told him to go home.

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Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

05/18/2024 23:50 -0400

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