Born in Palestine, Basem Ashkar has lived in the United States for 54 years. He says he is proud to be an American; he admires our country’s freedoms and democracy.
It is one of the reasons he peacefully rallies for his homeland amid the surge of violence in the Hamas-Israel war.
“Here we have a right to speak, so I must speak to help our Palestinian brothers and sisters who are in Gaza,” says Ashkar. “I believe in peace and justice for everybody.”
According to the most recent census data, Ashkar is one of the 747 people with Palestinian ancestry living in Monroe County. While diverse as any other group, they are currently united by a mixture of emotions including confusion, sadness, frustration and righteous hope.
“What we call for today is peace and justice for all people,” says Jonathan Khoury, a Rochester Institute of Technology graduate and activist with the Rochester Committee to End Apartheid. “We call upon our local representatives, through the Senate, through the House of Representatives, to insist on a cease-fire which has been proposed.”
“The worst is hearing the names that make us feel so dehumanized. That’s why I am here; to humanize us,” says Rochester resident Ahmad Saeed, who was present at a recent rally in support of Palestinians.
“So far in my life, I’ve witnessed three escalations,” adds Saeed, who grew up in Gaza. “Never in my life have I seen something so vicious and inhumane happening to my city.”
This latest conflict began on Oct. 7 when Hamas, the Islamist militant group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, launched a surprise attack on Israeli communities near the border, killing civilians and taking hostages. Retaliatory actions swiftly followed with Israeli air strikes across Gaza.
As of Oct. 30, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East reports that the death toll for Israelis and foreign nationals in Israel is nearly 1,400. The Ministry of Health in Gaza says 8,005 people have been killed there since Oct. 7. In the same period, 115 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank. Most of the deaths on both sides are of civilians.
The conflict has put even more pressure on Gaza, a region 10 times smaller than Monroe County with a population of 2 million people. Nearly 672,000 internally displaced people are sheltering in 149 UNRWA installations across Gaza, facing “increasingly desperate conditions.” Water shortages have been exacerbated as water, which is locally drilled, cannot be treated for contamination. Israel, which provides about half of all electricity to the strip, has cut off power in Gaza.
“Gaza is cut off from all kinds of support from the outside: food, water, basic medical supplies. Doctors are conducting surgeries using flashlights with their phones. They’re using vinegar to sterilize wounds,” says Saeed. “No matter how much you think the situation is bad over there, it’s even worse.”
The lands which make up modern-day Israel, Gaza and the West Bank were former Ottoman territories placed under British mandate in 1922. Support for a Jewish homeland under the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and Nazi persecution in the 1930s resulted in large-scale Jewish immigration. A rebellion fueled by Arab demands for independence in the region broke out in 1937 and further stoked conflict between sides.
Following the United Nations adoption of Resolution 181(II), which was a plan to partition the land into two states, a civil war began in 1947. This conflict evolved into what is known in Israel as the War for Independence and in the Arabic world, a main component of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” referring to the displacement of Palestinians.
An armistice was signed in 1949 with Gaza and the West Bank regions remaining under Palestinian control. In 1967, those regions were occupied by Israel following the Six-Day War.
Traveling outside those regions for Palestinians is difficult and travel between them is banned by Israel.
Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, the strip has been blockaded by Israel (and Egypt) for security reasons. The blockage has been cited as a key factor in Gaza’s high unemployment, severe electricity crises, and a dependency on humanitarian aid.
In the West Bank, the Israeli government has allowed and encouraged a “settler strategy,” with Israeli civilians establishing communities in the occupied territory often for religious reasons or because housing is cheap and subsidized. This strategy, adopted in part to increase Israel’s security, has been criticized as actively blurring or constraining the boundaries of any future Palestinian state.
“I think the depiction and understanding of this as a religious war is so simple to refute and one of the points we have to focus on a lot,” says Khoury, who is a Christian Palestinian. He pointed to the 2022 death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Christian Palestinian-American journalist who was killed by an Israeli soldier while covering an Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. “This is an equal-opportunist oppression. This has nothing to do with what religious background you’re from.”
“We’re looking for peace for everyone, for all Muslim and Jewish and Christian,” says Ashkar.
That desire for peace is not a passive expression, however. Ashkar implores people to call their elected officials and is quick to name President Joe Biden and Rep. Joseph Morelle as politicians who could lose his vote.
“Wake up, Biden. You make the wrong decision,” he says, referencing Biden’s approach to aid toward Israel. “There’s nothing wrong with helping the people, but you send bombs and ships and airplanes to destroy a people. You will lose the election, believe me, because the American people support peace, not a war.”
“It’s all funded from here. Let’s not think it’s disconnected from us because it’s an ocean and a sea away,” Saeed says. “The money and the military and the bombs that (are) bombing my hometown is coming from here.”
Since 1948, the U.S. has given Israel more than $130 billion in bilateral assistance toward security threats, according to the Department of State. Recently, Biden introduced a $105 billion security package that would distribute aid to a number of areas, including Israel.
The package would “strengthen Israel’s defense from vicious terrorist attacks and bolster the Israeli Defense Forces” as well as provide “life-saving humanitarian assistance in Gaza and support for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and surrounding areas,” according to a White House fact sheet.
Khoury wants politicians to go even further and push to declare a cease-fire in the area. (Both Israel and the U.S. rejected calls for a cease-fire option at a UN meeting last week.)
“At the end of the day we’re an occupied nation,” Saeed says. “Who the hell is protecting us?”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].