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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Protest against Gaza war draws thousands to the White House

By Minho Kim

Thousands of pro-Palestinian protesters in Washington converged around the White House on Saturday, urging President Joe Biden to stop all military aid to Israel and calling for an immediate cease-fire in Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip.

Holding signs calling Biden a liar, the protesters, mostly clad in red and bearing Palestinian flags, marched around the block of parkland where the White House sits. They spilled across two six-lane boulevards, pushing out tourists, whose faces showed variations of confusion, anger or intrigue. The police presence was heavy, and the U.S. Park Police used pepper spray against a protester at least once.

Biden was in France, where he joined President Emmanuel Macron for a state dinner in Paris on Saturday night. But the dissenting voices in the American capital highlighted the challenges he faces domestically as he tries to carve out a narrow position that both supports Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas and calls for a quick cessation of hostilities.

The pro-Palestinian activists outside the White House, who were highly critical of the Biden administration’s response to the war, encouraged a key portion of Biden’s base — young and nonwhite voters — to reconsider their support for the president in the election this fall.

“There is no world in which I can confidently vote for” Biden, said Nas Issa, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Youth Movement, one of the left-leaning groups that organized Saturday’s protest. If Biden “doesn’t change course and hold Netanyahu and the Israeli government at large to account, under what circumstances would it be acceptable to any person of conscience to vote for him?” she added, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

On Saturday afternoon, some protesters created a ring along the mile-long White House perimeter, unspooling consecutive lengths of red paper on which names of the more than 36,000 Palestinians who had been killed during the war were written. The others marched along the perimeter. The format was intended to evoke a red line that, if crossed by the Israeli military in Gaza, would cause Biden to withhold weapons shipments to Israel.

But Biden and his administration have said recent strikes that killed dozens of Palestinians in the Gaza city of Rafah did not amount to his red line for Israel. John Kirby, a White House spokesperson, has said the United States would need to see “a major ground operation” — not airstrikes — to step up its pressure on Israel.

“Biden’s red line was a lie!” read one of the pickets frequently used by the protesters.

The protesters who gathered Saturday to apply political pressure to Biden said their biggest demand was the freezing of all weapons shipments to Israel until the war stops. The United States has committed $38 billion in military aid to Israel over 10 years.

“We’re funding it,” said Alexia Samano, a protester who traveled to Washington from Orlando, Florida. “Stop funding this.”

No arrests had been made by late Saturday afternoon, when tens of thousands of protesters finished marching around the perimeter, according to law enforcement. But statues in Lafayette Square, on the northern side of the White House, were vandalized with handwritten scribbles that read “free Palestine.” Two statues of cherubs were also covered in a red, gooey substance that seemed to represent blood.

And many protesters chanted slogans that some Jewish groups have said incite violence against Jews, such as “there is only one solution: intifada, revolution,” as well as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

But according to one protester, such slogans were not a call for violence against Jewish people, but for a broader resistance against the status quo.

“We don’t have anything against Jews,” said Adam Kattom, a founding member of Peoria for Palestine, who had traveled 12 hours from Peoria, Illinois, to join the demonstration.

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