As Gaza burned and violence by Hamas and the Israeli Defense Force added to the mounting death toll of the current conflict in the Middle East, Penn students gathered on Locust Walk and College Green yesterday in protest, solidarity or both.
They carried signs: "End the Genocide in Gaza"; "Israel We Stand with You"; "Zionism=Racism"; "Free the Palestinians from Hamas."
The students formed two separate groups: one marching in silence against violence in Gaza and the other rallying to support Israel. The rally included five speeches and a prayer for peace.
And although the two groups were distinct, there were many students who wished for a group representing those who both support Israel and are against the killing of innocent civilians in Gaza.
"I want to sit in the middle of the rallies. I want to express support for Israel and for any innocent people who are dying," said College sophomore Elisheva Goldberg. "The rallies don't express the subtleties of the situation."
But while most everyone in the marches expressed sadness that more than 1,000 people, many of them civilians, have been killed since Israel launched a major offensive on Gaza nearly three weeks ago, many students came equipped with arguments explaining why they stand firmly with either Israel or Gaza.
Wharton senior and former Daily Pennsylvanian staff writer Brian Finkel, a former president of Penn's Zionist Freedom Alliance, said he is saddened by the death of innocent Palestinians, but said they are partly to blame for their fate.
"It is horrific these people are living like this, but they have to take some of the responsibility. They elected Hamas," he said. "Until there is a peace party [in Palestine], we don't owe them anything."
He emphasized that Hamas, elected as a majority in Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, is a terrorist organization and thus illegitimate. He cited the "65,000 rockets that have been fired on Israeli citizens" by Hamas, its use of human shields and its intentional targeting of civilians as proof.
The U.S. government, among others including Japan and Canada, classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Engineering sophomore Dara Elass, a leader of Penn for Palestine, the group that organized the March for Gaza, disagrees.
"I do not think Hamas is a terrorist organization. I do not. People need to know the history to understand what Hamas is resisting," she said. "It is resisting Zionism, it is resisting the Palestinians being thrown out of their own land, losing their culture and traditions, losing their existence."
Her sentiments were shared by College junior Sheri Abdel-Rahman, who wondered why Hamas is called a terrorist organization and the IDF isn't. "Hamas is fighting for the survival of the Palestinians, the same thing the IDF claims to be doing," she said. "Who decides Hamas is a terrorist organization and the IDF isn't?"
Abdel-Rahman, a Palestinian Muslim who lives in Jerusalem, said that regardless of whether or not Hamas is a terrorist organization, she does not agree with its stated goal: the dissolution of Israel.
"You ask me if I recognize Israel's 'right to exist'? I do," she said. "But do they recognize the Palestinians' 'right to exist'? You can be a staunch Israeli advocate, but you can never justify this killing."
However, many of those who gathered to support Israel asserted that the state is just in its methods because it is acting in self-defense.
College senior Brandon Paroly, president of Penn Israel Coalition, which organized yesterday's rally for Israel, argued that Israel has acted wisely.
"Everything Israel has done has been legitimately and logically in her defense," he said. "Not to take away from the Palestinian deaths, but Israel's need to destroy Hamas' fighting ability and the unfortunate deaths that result from Hamas' fighting strategy have to be viewed separately."
College and Wharton freshman Besan Abu-Joudeh agreed that all people have a right to defend themselves, but said he does not believe Israel's actions can be characterized as self-defense.
"It can't possibly be justified as defense because now you have families that wanted to live peacefully joining the resistance," she said. "You have fathers whose children and wives have been killed who now vow to join Hamas. People don't have food or water or shelter. Gaza is a giant ghetto. Put yourself in their shoes."
The United Nations Human Rights Commission condemned Israeli policy toward Gaza on similar grounds in a Dec. 27 report from Princeton professor Richard Falk, the UN's Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Occupied Territories. In it, he argued that "Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza strip represent severe and massive violations of international law."
He emphasized that the "rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel are unlawful. But that illegality does not give rise to any Israeli right ... to violate international humanitarian law and commit war crimes or crimes against humanity."
Political Science professor and Middle East scholar Ian Lustick said Israel's full-blown tactics are related to the Arab world's increased opposition to Israel's statehood in recent years and Israel's recognition of that fact.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack called Israel "a villa in the jungle," Lustick said. "You don't survive by making peace with the animals, you shoot at them when they come near the fence. This is the mindset that has taken hold in Israel."
As the conflict in Gaza carries on, the complexity of the situation continues to reveal itself. "Every Palestinian knows someone who has died, every Israeli knows someone who has died and that is fanning the flames," said Rabbi Mike Uram, associate director of Penn Hillel. "How do we get beyond the rhetoric, hyperbolic rhetoric that prevents us from talking about practical ways to get to peace and instead focuses on who is wrong?"
And the efforts on all sides to sift through the hyperbole, Uram said, heighten the sense that among those in Gaza dying and starving, those in Israel living in constant fear of attack and those speaking out against violence in all its forms, there exists "a silent majority that wants peace."
Goldberg underscored that peace must be based on justice.
"What Gaza needs is a Gandhi," she said.