SLO County residents of Palestinian descent rally


SUSTAINED SOLIDARITY The Oct. 21 rally for Palestine contained a large contingent of children whom former SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon said she wanted to uplift. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • SUSTAINED SOLIDARITY The Oct. 21 rally for Palestine contained a large contingent of children whom former SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon said she wanted to uplift.

Striped black, white, and dark green with a bright red equilateral triangle on the left, Palestinian flags billowed under the afternoon sun in downtown San Luis Obispo.

Dozens of people waved the emblem, and scores more wore checkered black and white scarves called keffiyeh either around their necks or heads.

These are the fabrics of identity for the Palestinian people.

From 3:30 p.m. until early evening on Oct. 21, hundreds of locals of Palestinian ethnicity and allies including kids, college students, adults, and senior citizens, marched to protest Israel's attacks on Palestine and the United States' multi-billion-dollar funding of it.

One marcher was longtime SLO resident Bass Wehhab. Wehhab grew up in Sacramento. His parents moved to California from Palestine in 1967 after the Six-Day War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states.

"I grew up hearing horror stories," he announced at the rally. "There's nothing happening here other than unconquered evil. This evil is colonialism."

Israel's current airstrikes on the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank are in retaliation for the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel—part of Palestine's 75-year-long struggle for independence. In 1948—decades after the British government stated its support for a "national home for the Jewish people" on Arab land through the Balfour Declaration—Israel became a state with immediate recognition from the United States and the Soviet Union. According to Al Jazeera reporting, Jewish nationalists, called Zionists, expelled more than 80 percent of Palestinians in the process and seized roughly 80 percent of Palestinian land.

Soon after, 150,000 Palestinians remained in Israel and eventually received citizenship but were subjected to military rule until 1996. Israel conquered regions in occupied Palestinian territory—the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—in 1967, sparking military control there. With no land army, air force, or navy, Palestine has fought for freedom against the Israeli government and its national military, the Israeli Defense Forces.

On Oct. 7, the political and military organization Hamas, which has been governing the Gaza Strip since 2007, launched a surprise offensive of 5,000 rockets on Israel killing at least 1,400 Israelis, ABC News reported.

The U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization, with President Joe Biden calling it a "terrorist group" that "unleashed pure, unadulterated evil in the world."

Immediately after the Hamas bombing, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a siege on the Gaza Strip—a 140-square mile sliver of land packed with 2.2 million Palestinians, half of whom are children. Human rights groups have called the strip an "open-air prison." With Israeli air strikes underway in Gaza, its residents are cut off from electricity, food, water, and fuel. Israel's bombs killed more 4,000 people, Al Jazeera reported, and 338,000 Palestinians are now displaced from their homes.

"Hamas is not a Palestinian group and not representative of the Palestinian people," Wehhab told New Times on Oct. 23. "This whole Hamas thing is just a label that the Western media is putting on it to make it look like it's Israel versus Hamas. No, it's just Israel waging war on Palestine."

The New York Times reported that Israel saw the deadliest day since its inception on Oct. 7 with the Hamas attack. More Palestinians have been killed so far in 2023 than in 2014, when more than 2,000 were killed in a 50-day war.

At the Oct. 17 SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting, the top officials unanimously condemned Hamas' attack on Israel but remained silent on Israel's continued aggravation against Palestine.

"I condemn these atrocities unconditionally," 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson said in an official statement after the meeting. "I stand with Israel and the Jewish people worldwide in support of an appropriate response to this criminal barbarity."

During the meeting, 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg said she felt caught in the middle.

"The person that influenced me most about being a public official is Anne Frank, and so I feel really strongly about the ability to stand with Jews and with Israel," she said. "But also, I'm a mother, and I'm heartbroken over the Palestinian children."

First District Supervisor John Peschong, 4th District Supervisor Jimmy Paulding, and 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold echoed their peers' sentiments. Their comments came after residents urged support for Israel during the public comment period.

County resident and former Republican Congresswoman Andrea Seastrand requested the supervisors adopt a resolution opposing "the extermination of Jews."

"Today, we see neo-Nazis in our streets of America calling for the killing of Jews," she said. "Most importantly, I want to emphasize the open borders today ... and especially our southern border, with thousands coming every day ... traveling to all parts of this land and we don't know who they are."

A Cal Poly student affiliated with the independent group Abolitionist Action Central Coast SLO (AACCS) told New Times that misinformation is rife in SLO County and across the nation where criticizing Zionism is conflated with anti-Semitism. The student requested anonymity for safety concerns.

"American Jews are not under threat by Palestinian people," they said. "People who attack synagogues and our Jewish comrades are white supremacists."

As recently as Oct. 22, some residents in a SLO neighborhood found plastic bags weighed down by rocks in their driveways. Photographs published in a now-deleted Nextdoor post showed that the bags contained a pamphlet from the California Blackshirts, bearing anti-Semitic messaging, references to the Talmud, and the statement, "To fight for Israel is to fight for pedophiles."

Young county residents continue working to raise awareness. On Oct. 25, a group of Cal Poly students planned to host a teach-in on campus that aims to offer a de-colonial perspective on Palestine.

The Oct. 21 rally for Palestine took place a week after a Jewish Community Rally marched downtown SLO to support Israel after the Hamas offensive.

Palestine ally Wehhab, in turn, hopes his speech at the rally for Palestine will inspire people to move away from politicians and support local chapters of groups like the NAACP, Diversity Coalition, and Race Matters, who already "embrace the opposite of what's going on now, which is white supremacy and apartheid."

Still, Wehhab added that he respected the words of a one-time politician who spoke at the rally for Palestine: former SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon, who called Israel's assault on Palestine an apartheid.

"It is heartening to see Jews worldwide link arms with Muslims and Christians ... and demand, 'Not in my name,' from the Israeli government," she announced prior to the rally. "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim." Δ

Clarification: This story was updated to include the year that military rule over Palestinians in Israel ended.

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].


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