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Israeli-Palestinian conflict dismays Upper Valley advocates on both sides

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/14/2021 9:18:55 PM
Modified: 5/17/2021 2:02:28 PM

HANOVER — People around the world watched with dismay this week as Israeli forces and Hamas engaged in the worst violence seen in the Gaza Strip and Israeli cities in years.

In the Upper Valley, where many are divided on where to place their support, the deadly clashes and airstrikes have led to calls for action and response from local leaders.

On Saturday, a group that identifies as pro-Palestine is holding a rally on the Dartmouth Green marking the “Nakba,” an Arabic word for catastrophe that refers to the expulsion or displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians around the founding of Israel in May 1948. It is also intended to urge Dartmouth College to speak out in support of Palestinian rights, according to organizers.

“This is a revolution and movement for human rights,” said Mohsen Mahdawi, a Palestinian native and Hartford resident who will speak on Saturday about his experience growing up amid the conflict in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, a group of students and some faculty who identify as pro-Israel plan to send a letter to college officials showing their support for Israel and urging similar support from the school.

“We need to share the perspective of Israelis who are there,” Dartmouth junior Benjamin Cape said, adding that the pro-Palestine stance has become the “accepted perspective” in the United States in recent years, largely because of how vocal supporters are. “We need to be outspoken just as they are so that both messages are heard.”

The divide among Upper Valley residents is indicative of growing tensions and fear among U.S. citizens over civil unrest in the Middle East.

Those feelings were amplified this week following news of a violent confrontation Monday between Israeli police and Arab protesters near a mosque in Jerusalem. The confrontation left 300 Palestinians injured and prompted Hamas, the militant Palestinian resistance group, to launch rocket attacks and Israeli fighters to respond with airstrikes.

“It’s a lot of anguish and heartache,” said the Rev. John Gregory-Davis, co-pastor of Meriden Congregational Church, of the feelings he has watching the conflict unfold.

He said he is fully supportive of Israel’s right to exist as a state, but is adamantly against violence exacted on Palestinians.

“Israel’s power and abuse of Palestinian people is breaking international law,” he said.

He acknowledged that the fighting is coming from both sides but argued that the aggression from Palestinians is out of “desperation” following a decadeslong fight for survival and due in part to poor living conditions in places like Gaza and the West Bank. Threats — and action — on the part of the Israeli government to evict Palestinians from their homes has played a large part in the conflict, he said.

“You can’t keep taking (their) land and livelihood. ... It’s ongoing oppression,” he said.

The violence has been painful for Mahdawi, who said he remembers watching childhood friends and family members shot and killed in front of him by Israeli Defense Forces while growing up in a refugee camp in the West Bank. This week has brought all of those memories rushing back, he said.

“You have people who are begging for their human rights for 73 years and you have a state, a government that think and believe it’s not their responsibility to give these people their right,” he said. “The whole world was witnessing and doing nothing about it.”

In addition to support from local leaders, Mahdawi said that following this period of violence he would like to see the United States stop sending financial support to Israel. He pointed to a deal finalized by then-President Barack Obama in 2016 to give $38 billion in military aid to Israel.

“If you support it, you’re helping this tyrant machine to kill more and more people,” he said.

However, Mahdawi added, he thinks the general attitude of U.S. citizens toward the conflict is changing in favor of Palestinians. That change is possibly spurred by a general distrust of police following a year of protests against police brutality, which has affected the way many Americans view Israeli security forces, he said.

“They’re realizing what they have been taught in the last 50 years by the Zionist movement is largely propaganda,” he said, adding that Jews and Arabs in the United States should be working together to oppose the violence.

However, Rabbi Moshe Leib Gray, executive director of Chabad at Dartmouth, argues it is impossible to fully separate Judaism from Israel and that a lot of the response to the ongoing conflict he’s seen has been deeply antisemitic.

“This is not black and white like people on social media believe,” he said, adding that many people who have vocally supported Palestine and Hamas online are not fully educated on the decadeslong conflict.

He urged people to examine both sides of the issue before sharing their perspective online, especially now, amid the conflict. That includes being as critical of Hamas as they would be of the Israeli government, he said.

“If you feel that you need to condemn the Israeli government for their actions, that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean you can’t condemn Hamas for lobbing 2,000 rockets into Israel and putting people at risk,” Gray said.

He added that Hamas is a terrorist organization and that Israel’s decision to evict Palestinian families from their homes does not warrant the severity of Hamas’ response.

“I don’t think that’s a controversial stand. It’s a terrorist organization that sent 2,000 missiles blindly. It doesn’t really matter what Israel did,” Gray said.

Cape, the Dartmouth student who lived in Israel for two years following his high school graduation, echoed Gray’s thoughts on Hamas and added that he sees Saturday’s rally as an anti-Israel protest.

“They don’t believe in my right to self-determination,” Cape said. “They want my country, my homeland to not exist.”

He explained that he has felt a “constant worry” for his friends in Israel who have spent most of the week staying in bomb shelters. Cape said his friends have largely become desensitized to the violence because it is “common for Hamas to be firing rockets.”

“This is the reality that Israelis live under,” Cape said.

Though he recalled violent outbursts between Israel and Palestinian supporters several years ago, this week has felt different, Cape said. Part of that is due to a change in Americans’ perspective on the violence — similar to the change Mahdawi described — but another part has to do with the nature of the violence. In parts of Israel, often called “mixed cities,” clashes between Jewish and Arab mobs have raised new concerns.

“What they’re worried about more is the potential for civil war in Israel,” Cape said of his friends there.

Like Gray, Cape wants to urge his fellow students to listen to educate themselves and each other before choosing a side to support. He said he’s met many classmates at Dartmouth who are vehemently pro-Palestine but have never been to Israel.

“They’re projecting their American view on a place that is simply different. It’s way more complicated than they make it seem,” he said.

The “Nakba” rally will be held at 6 p.m. at the Dartmouth Green on Saturday. Cape said he plans to send his letter supporting Israel, with fellow students’ signatures, to school officials on Sunday.

Anna Merriman can be reached at or 603-727-3216.


This story has been updated to clarify the timing of when Palestinians regard to be the start of Nakba.

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