Hundreds march in Balboa Park in week of rallies on Middle East conflict

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SAN DIEGO – The Palestinian Youth Movement’s San Diego chapter on Saturday organized one of the largest marches the city has seen this year to show support for Palestinians caught in the conflict over the Gaza Strip, which has also prompted rallies from local pro-Israel groups in recent days.

May 15 is when Palestinians commemorate the Day of al-Nakba, or “the Catastrophe,” remembering the estimated 700,000 people who were expelled from or fled their homes during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation. This year, the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestine looms behind the annual commemoration.

Five days of mayhem have left at least 145 Palestinians dead in Gaza — including 41 children and 23 women — and eight dead on the Israeli side, all but one of them civilians, including a 5-year-old. The week of deadly violence, set off by a Hamas rocket Monday, came after weeks of mounting tensions and heavy-handed Israeli measures in contested Jerusalem.

“For the past month or so the military has been trying to displace people in a neighborhood in Jerusalem called Sheikh Jarrah and it is illegal under international law,” said Ramah Awad, with the Palestinian Youth Movement.  

“This did not start this week or last month, the U.S. has a long history of enabling Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestine – the solution is not complicated. We are calling on the U.S. government to immediately condition and end military funding to Israel.”

Palestinian refugee Jamal Kanj marched alongside thousands of Palestinian supporters around California Saturday chanting “Free Palestine.” Kanj says his parents where expelled in 1948 and moved to a refugee camp in Lebanon where he grew up.  

“All I’m asking these politicians really is to just treat Palestinians like human beings, that they have rights and their rights need to be protected just like anyone,” Kanj said.  

Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization which focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, marched alongside Palestinians Saturday.  

President Biden said he spoke to Israeli Prime Minster Netanyahu on Saturday, reaffirming his strong support for Israel: “Israel has its right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory,” he said. 

The pro-Israel organization Stand With Us and other local groups have organized their own rallies in recent days, including a demonstration in La Jolla on Thursday.

“American Jews like me find it very painful to watch videos of rockets raining down on civilian neighborhoods, because we worry deeply about our family and friends that have only 15 seconds to find shelter once the rocket sirens go off,” Yael Steinberg, the group’s San Diego chapter director, told the San Diego Union-Tribune at the La Jolla demonstration.

Steinberg said many in the group still have loved ones in Israel, prompting constant anxiety: “It’s an impossible situation. How do you bring your sleeping children or elderly parents to a bomb shelter within 15 seconds? We are constantly checking to see if everyone is OK.”

“We are getting hurt by what we’re seeing in the media, and on Instagram and TikTok, places where there are no fact checks,” Ben-Moshe, co-founder of Shield of David, another local pro-Israel group, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “People are making stuff up. Kids are being shown these videos saying that ‘Israelis are baby killers’ and attacking for no reason.”

The most recent tensions began in east Jerusalem earlier this month, when Palestinians protested attempts by settlers to forcibly evict a number of Palestinian families from their homes and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a frequent flashpoint located on a mount in the Old City revered by Muslims and Jews.

Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday, triggering the Israeli assault on Gaza. Since then, Hamas has fired more than 2,000 rockets, though most have either fallen short or been intercepted by anti-missile defenses. Israel’s warplanes and artillery have struck hundreds of targets around blockaded Gaza, where some 2 million Palestinians live.

The turmoil has also spilled over elsewhere, fueling protests in the occupied West Bank and stoking violence within Israel between its Jewish and Arab citizens, with clashes and vigilante attacks on people and property.

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars and several smaller battles. The worst so far was the 2014 war, which lasted for 50 days and killed some 2,200 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians. Seventy-three people were killed on the Israeli side.

Israel’s airstrikes and incursions into Gaza have left vast swaths of destruction, with entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble and thousands forced to shelter in U.N. schools and other facilities. Israel says it makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties and accuses Hamas of using Gazans as human shields.

Palestinian militants have fired thousands of rockets into Israel. The vast majority are intercepted by Israeli missile defenses or land in open areas, but they sow widespread fear and can bring life to a standstill. Their range has steadily increased in recent years, with some striking as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, major metropolitan areas.

Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories. It is expected to scrutinize the actions of both Israel and Palestinian militants in the 2014 war.

The ICC has also expressed concern about the latest violence.

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