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Friday, June 14, 2024

Gainesville, UF community divided over Israel-Hamas war

Hundreds of students attended vigils, protests

In wake of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, affected UF student and community groups came together with split support for Israel and Palestine.

A variety of demonstrations were held both on campus and in the Gainesville community with involvement from both students and locals affected by the ongoing conflict in Israel.

United with Israel vigil

Hundreds came together Oct. 9 in Turlington to show support for the people in Israel. Students, Jewish community leaders and local residents were among those present at the vigil, which ended in a panic-driven stampede. 

Jonah Zinn, the UF campus Rabbi and executive director for Hillel, helped plan the United with Israel vigil. Other organizations such as Chabad, Gators for Israel, Jewish Student Union and Kulanu aided the planning.

“The inspiration for the vigil was that students wanted an opportunity to gather, to support one another and remember the victims of Hamas terrorism and stand in solidarity with the people of Israel,” Zinn said. 

At the vigil, Zinn, UF President Ben Sasse and students shared remarks and gave testimonies about alumni and family members who are currently in Israel. 

The event ended in a panic when a woman fainted and a man next to her asked other attendees to call 911. The crowd misunderstood the situation and ran off. Several attendees were injured in the scramble for safety.

“It’s unfortunate the way the vigil ended, but I think students have really come together to support one another, to share the range of emotions that they feel and to continue to sort of reflect on and support the people and reflect on the situation in Israel,” Zinn said. 

Hillel offers a range of opportunities for students to create a community and connect with their Jewish identity, he said. 

“Students have been affected by the terrorist attack on Israel in really profound ways and part of our mission is to support students as they deal with this really heinous attack on the Jewish people,” Zinn said. 

Hillel doesn’t have another vigil planned as of Oct. 15, but it is focusing its efforts on supporting students throughout the crisis. 

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Abraham Hilu, a 25-year-old UF political science junior, was at the United with Israel vigil.

He went because he didn’t have anyone to talk with about the attack, he said.

“When I saw that there was going to be an event, specifically for what’s happening right now, I was like, ‘I really want to show my support for Israel because I did go there for a gap year,’” Hilu said. 

When the panic broke out in Turlington, Hilu felt his heart race and he ran toward The Hub. 

“It happened in a blink of an eye,” he said. “Essentially everyone was all quiet, and we were listening to someone that was about to say a prayer. And then I didn’t even hear anything.”

He worried whether someone saw a gun and thought it had to be a terrorist attack, Hilu said. 

Hilu and other students ran into the halls of Turlington for cover. In the stampede for protection, Hilu said he fell. 

“Everybody was squished in, and I actually fell myself,” Hilu said. “I picked myself back up, but other people fell too, and I felt like I was gonna get trampled.”

The conflict in Israel has deeply impacted Hilu. He knows people who are in Israel and has a friend who had to go into the military reserves, he said. 

“It really has taken over my life, in a sense where it’s all I think about,” he said. “I just think about my brothers and sisters that are out there. I have a friend that had to go into the reserves, and he has to be out there.” 

Palestinian protest, teach-in

A crowd of around 100 UF students lingered inside and around a Turlington classroom — guarded by several police officers — for “Day of Resistance,” an informational lecture hosted by three UF organizations Oct. 12 about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Islam on Campus (IOC) and Arab Students’ Association (ASA) hosted the discussion “Day of Resistance,” which the national chapter of SJP declared as a demonstration to all college campuses across the world on its Instagram. 

Omar Ateyah, a 22-year-old UF journalism senior and president of IOC, said the three organizations came together to organize the event in hopes of informing students on the nation’s history.

“We decided that it was really important to educate people on the decades of oppression that Palestinians have been experiencing,” he said.

Ateyah spoke during the presentation on the development of war between Israel and Palestine, emphasizing the need for resistance from “settler colonialism and apartheid.”  

Students presenting made historical connections of the current conflict to the Trail of Tears in the U.S. and Apartheid in South Africa. Other students highlighted the difference between Zionism and antisemitism, constructing a system of oppression, and propaganda.

Students like 19-year-old UF civil engineering sophomore Dareen Abukhalil said she attended the presentation to stand in solidarity with Palestinian resistance. 

“I came here to support Palestine about the ongoing human rights violation happening in Gaza,” she said. “Free Palestine.” 

Matthew Boughton, an 18-year-old UF computer science and math freshman, attended the event, expressing concerns for the nation’s vulnerability. Several of his friends are from Palestine, and he fears for their families, he said. 

“There’s a lot of propaganda, and I hope that people can better understand the situation and they're able to understand that all lives do matter,” he said.

Boughton believes the media should also address the historical buildup of the conflict so students can understand different perspectives of the situation.

“I hope for people to understand more of the 70 years conflict that’s happening right now,” he said.

Later that week, Florida Prisoner Solidarity also held a demonstration Oct. 15 on the corner of University Avenue and 13th Street in support of the people in Palestine. 

The event came days after Students for Justice in Palestine held an informal lecture Oct. 12 in a Turlington classroom for Palestine’s Day of Resistance, which had been declared by the national chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

Together with Islam on Campus and Arab Students’ Association, the lecture saw over a 100 students attend. 

The Oct. 15 demonstration began at 2 p.m. and around 150 people came out in support of the Palestinian people.

Throughout the demonstration, leaders engaged the crowd in call and response chants. The chants were distributed to demonstrators through a QR code.

Joshua Spence-Lehmann, a 24-year-old Santa Fe College political science major, heard about the protest through social media and decided to show his support.

“It seems like not only do we have a good number of people, all of them seem to be feverishly passionate and that’s a good thing,” Spence-Lehmann said. “They all seem committed towards nonviolence.”

He hopes the protest will move public support to Palestine. 

“At the moment, I feel like the primary thing we can do is engage the public like this and try and shift public support,” Spence-Lehmann said. 

Kat Tran contributed to this report.

Contact Megan Howard at mhoward@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @meganmhxward.


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Megan Howard

Megan Howard is a second-year journalism major and the K-12 Education reporter for The Alligator. When she's not writing, you can find her rewatching the Eras Tour movie or reading The Hunger Games series.


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