US campus protests of Israeli ‘genocide’ offer hope to students from Gaza

Student protests in the United States have caught the attention of students from Gaza, giving them hope for the future.

a child walks past a tent with green writing saying thank you to the students
An internally displaced Palestinian child walks past a tent with a thank you message dedicated to students at Columbia University in New York, at the Rafah refugee camp on April 27, 2024. Protests erupted at Columbia and quickly spread through college campuses across the United States as students call on universities to divest from companies that provide arms to Israel [Haitham Imad/EPA-EFE]

On April 21, Hala Sharaf’s heart was heavy as she left her family in Gaza to resume her studies in Cairo, Egypt.

After surviving Israel’s devastating war on the besieged enclave, she feared the world had forgotten about the plight of her people.

Gaza has been under a relentless Israeli assault in retaliation for a Hamas-led attack on Israeli communities and military outposts on October 7, in which 1,139 were killed and about 250 taken captive.

In Cairo, Hala saw videos of university students protesting across the United States in the face of threats of suspension and police raids.

The second-year medical student was surprised. She had expected that Western audiences would tire of the news cycle quickly when it covered death and destruction in Palestine, and she had never imagined that her American peers would risk their futures to call for a ceasefire and for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

“It seems only students support us, but they have made us feel so hopeful for rejecting what America and Israel are doing to us,” Sharaf, 20, told Al Jazeera.

Hala Sharaf wears a black hijab and hugs her friend in the Gaza Strip. [Al Jazeera/Hala Sharaf]
Hala Sharaf wears a black hijab and hugs her friend in the Gaza Strip [Courtesy of Hala Sharaf]

‘Our voice’

Sharaf’s is one of millions of Palestinian lives upended by Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed some 35,000 Palestinians, uprooted most of its 2.3 million people, and put their families outside Gaza through agonies of uncertainty as they seek information on their loved ones.

“Nobody can imagine what we went through in Gaza. We lost our homes and [everything that underpins] our society.”

Many Palestinians have left for Egypt to escape Israel’s relentless assault and its looming invasion of Rafah on the Egyptian border, where at least 1.5 million Palestinians displaced from all over Gaza are sheltering.

Four Palestinian students who recently came to Cairo spoke to Al Jazeera about the US student protests.

“I feel those students in America are our voice,” said Zahra al-Kurd, 19, a Palestinian medical student in Cairo.

“Even if the protests don’t change the situation for us now, we know that it will help us in the long run.”

Zahra al-Kurd [front] takes selfie with her classmates at Al-Azhar University.
Zahra al-Kurd, front, takes a selfie with her classmates at Al-Azhar University [Courtesy of Zahra al-Kurd]

Al-Kurd says she lost 250 members of her family since Israel launched its war on Gaza.

In the first week of the war, al-Kurd and her family fled to southern Gaza seeking safety from Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment.

But after their arrival, a bomb fell on the house next to where they were staying and flattened the neighbourhood.

Al-Kurd lost 17 members of her family in that Israeli attack, but she survived.

“My mother’s face was too disfigured to identify her … and my father passed away in the hospital from his injuries about a week later,” she told Al Jazeera.

Losing futures and mentors

Since October 7, Israel has destroyed or damaged more than 280 schools and all of Gaza’s 12 universities.

Mohamad Abu Ghali, 22, recalls watching from his window as the Israeli army destroyed his college, the Islamic University.

He was supposed to graduate last semester with a physics degree, but the ceremony never happened due to the war.

“I was at home and it was very clear from my window what happened to the Islamic University. When [Israel] does mass bombing – or carpet bombing – it can be seen from everywhere,” he told Al Jazeera.

On April 25, Abu Ghali left Rafah to try and complete his education in Cairo. Since then, he has closely observed the demonstrations unfolding in the US.

Mohamad Abu Ghali in his apartment in Cairo, Egypt.
Mohamad Abu Ghali in his apartment in Cairo, Egypt [Courtesy of Mohamad Abu Ghali]

He said he was moved by a viral video of Noelle McAfee, chair of the Philosophy Department at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who was arrested by police and zip-tied for trying to protect the students in the protest encampment.

Hundreds of other university professors across the US have been arrested for standing up to protect student protesters and heavily armed police squads.

At Columbia University in New York, professors even formed a human chain to protect the students, despite the threat of losing their jobs and careers for their actions.

Abu Ghali said the brave professors in the US remind him of his own instructors, many of whom lost their lives in what rights groups describe as an Israeli genocide. He particularly misses Sufyan Tayeh, president of the Islamic University, who was killed along with his family in the Jabalia refugee camp.

Tayeh is one of 95 university professors killed since October 7, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“[Tayeh] was a really amazing professor,” said Abu Ghali fondly. “He had such an advanced understanding of quantitative mechanics and advanced mathematics … I loved attending his classes.”

Semblance of hope

Israel’s war in Gaza has destroyed an entire society and shattered the dreams of a young generation, according to Tia al-Qudwa, a young medical student who has also sought refuge in Egypt.

She had just started university when the war began, and had hopes of graduating and helping to improve Gaza’s overburdened healthcare system – now lying in ruins after Israel damaged or destroyed dozens of medical facilities, including 24 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals.

“I’ve now changed my preference from wanting to study medicine, to … international law,” al-Qudwa, 18, told Al Jazeera.

“Of course, international law hasn’t changed anything, but what am I going to do? I either have to accept the world as unfair and unjust or be part of the change.”

Tia al-Qudwa gives a speech at her high-school graduation in 2023.
Tia al-Qudwa gives a speech at her high school graduation [Courtesy of Tia al-Qudwa]

After watching the student protests, al-Qudwa believes there is a generational shift in how Americans view the Palestinian cause and that the protests prove that many young people are committed to ending Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, despite the risks to them.

“I can’t believe the police are attacking peaceful protesters in the US. How is this democratic? It is fascism what’s happening there,” al-Qudwa said.

“I admire the students protesting. They’re risking their lives and futures for us.”

Sharaf, the second-year medical student, said many Palestinians from Gaza appreciate the solidarity from their peers in the US. She prays that the demonstrations will pressure Israel to halt its stated plan to invade Rafah, where her parents and loved ones are.

“The student protests in America make me feel like I’m not alone,” Sharaf told Al Jazeera.

“My message to them is to keep the focus on Gaza.

“Don’t forget about Gaza.”

Source: Al Jazeera