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Students lead panel on war in Gaza, history of Israel-Palestine conflict

| Friday, November 17, 2023

Student Voices for Palestine and the Muslim Student Association of Notre Dame hosted a student-led panel Thursday to discuss a brief history of events that lead up to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and the current crisis in Gaza.

“The goal is to provide a perspective on an issue that is not often shared in the USA,” Mohamed El Gazzah, president of the Muslim Student Association, said. “We know that we perhaps might not change your mind on this issue and we’re not here to tell you exactly what to think. But we’re simply here to propose that there’s another perspective with valid arguments that we can consider.”

The event also included voices from the local community. Zenah Farhan, a South Bend resident and graduate of Saint Xavier University, attended with her sister.

“We’re both here to learn more about what’s going on. And we are also Palestinian, so we want to make sure that we’re as educated as we can be. We have to be informed advocates,” Farhan said. “It’s not enough to be outraged by what you see in the media. [You need] to be able to eloquently explain how you feel and why it’s wrong.”

Farhan and her sister, who attends a local high school, heard about the event on social media.

Graduate students Seham Kafafi and Francesca Freeman spoke alongside Notre Dame sophomore Blair Kedwell on the panel. Kedwell is the president of Student Voices for Palestine.

Annelise Demers | The Observer

The presentation began with an account of the history of aggression between Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the current state of Gaza. 

“So this has been happening for 75 years plus an additional 40 days,” Kafafi said. 

The panelists took turns speaking and sharing statistics on different areas of the conflict.

“There have been over 11,000 civilians that have died. That’s one out of 200 people,” Kafafi said. “There are 1.5 million people who are now homeless. Forty thousand homes have been destroyed. And there are over 700,000 people who are sheltering in UN facilities.” 

The panelists discussed the “Nakba,” the displacement and dispossession of Palestinian Arabs that occurred during and after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, according to panelists and the U.N.

“Every Palestinian has a personal relationship with the Nakba in very different ways, whether they were forced to be refugees or whether they were forced to become Israeli citizens. My family became Israeli citizens,” Kedwell said. “But the Nakba resulted in the dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians, which at the time was about half of the population. Hundreds of villages were destroyed.”

The Partition Plan of 1947, which the panelists identified as a key moment in the history of the conflict, proposed the division of British Mandate Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, with an international administration for Jerusalem. 

“The distribution of the territory gives over 50% of the land to Israelis when they were at the time the minority population,” Kafafi said. 

The panelists then discussed Zionism and how World War II shifted the Jewish American perspective on the movement.

“Up until World War II, Jews in America were actually quite divided on Zionism. There was like a really big split. And mostly, people didn’t really care,” Freeman said.

Freeman, who now identifies as an anti-Zionist, said she is Jewish but became more critical of Israel after a trip there in college. She spoke about the power of Christian Zionism in the United States. Christian Zionism is the theological and political movement that supports the establishment and preservation of a Jewish homeland in Israel, in part because the group believes that it is a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ.

“In U.S. discourse, [there is] the idea that anything that is anti-Zionist is also inherently antisemitic. This comes from a few other places, but the Anti-Defamation League, which is sort of tasked with writing on antisemitism, is very insistent that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, and this is obviously highly problematic,” Freeman said. “This is not true, and in fact, insisting that that’s the case is actually in of itself antisemitic, but that is a hugely influential narrative that shapes American discourse and policy.”

The panel concluded with questions from the audience, and several students shared their opinions on the situation.

“There’s a lot of losing sight of what the value of human life is on both sides,” junior Andrew Donovan said. “It’s not like a football game where you choose a team and you want them to win. We’re trying to end a war, and we’re trying to stop children from dying, and we’re trying to save lives.”

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