_
_
_
_
_

The war between Israel and Hamas radicalizes the Palestinian community in New York

Traditionally Democratic voters are considering not voting for Biden in 2024 due to the administration’s support for the offensive against Gaza

María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo
Guerra Israel y Gaza
Demonstration in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza on October 21 in Bay Ridge (New York).STAFF (REUTERS)

Several residents of Bay Ridge say that they would gladly leave the quiet streets of this Brooklyn neighborhood, the epicenter of the Palestinian community in New York, to be in Gaza with their own people. Even many who have family members in the occupied West Bank would not hesitate to join the resistance in the Gaza Strip. The question of the atrocities committed by Hamas during its attack in Israel on October 7, which triggered the war, is rhetorically diluted among the rubble of the enclave: no one expressly legitimizes them, but there is no need to translate their answers to find out what they think.

“Imagine that an innocent child of four or five sees his parents, his brothers, his uncles and cousins die today in Gaza due to an Israeli bombing. All at the same time, just like so many entire families dying these days. In 15 or 20 years, that boy grabs a gun and enters a kibbutz and kills a Jewish family... He will still be as innocent as he is now, but what will he be called? A terrorist, right?” says Ali, the owner of a coffee shop. Born in the United States, but with family in Ramallah (West Bank), he adds: “I wish I were in Gaza now, because mentioning Gaza is a source of pride.”

The mosques of Bay Ridge have registered an unusual spike in activity since the war began, and the calls of the muezzin, as well as the sermons of the imam, can be heard live in many neighborhood businesses — at least in those that do not hang the “Closed for Prayers” sign in English and Arabic. Despite the massive influx at the mosques, and the fact that hate crimes have skyrocketed 214% since October 7 — mostly against Jews, according to the New York Police Department — there has been no visible reinforcement of security around the mosques, of which there are two in just five blocks. Only one patrol car was stationed in front of the bigger one the first two days.

“Neither Arab nor American, just Palestinian”

Many men huddle on the street in groups, sharing videos of bombings in the Gaza Strip, while the women pass by, occasionally shedding tears. Ali, who punctuates his speech with religious references, has already made two decisions: “Not to vote for the Democrats again” because of Joe Biden’s support for Israel, “and not to speak Arabic again, even if it is the language of the Koran, because of the backstabbing that neighboring countries have dealt us. I no longer feel neither Arab nor American, just Palestinian.”

Ali, a man in his late forties, was born and raised in New York, and he has an American wife and children. “This is not a war of religion; in fact, we are very grateful for the support of some Jews who are demonstrating for the ceasefire and for the civilians of Gaza, but religion has nothing to do with it: [Israel] is also killing Christians,” he adds, mentioning the airstrike against the 12th-century Greek Orthodox church of Saint Porphyry in Gaza, which left a dozen people dead. He takes out his cell phone and shows photos of the ruined church.

In the back room of his establishment, Ali starts a conversation with a client and with his friend and partner Zohair, a Palestinian born in Kuwait to refugee parents and who spent seven years in the West Bank in his younger years, a period that included four stints inside Israeli prisons “for wanting to live free, for opposing the occupation.” An American citizen, his first language remains Arabic and, although less religious than Ali, he also entrusts himself to Allah in the hope of a peaceful future. “The present is a terrible wait,” says Zohair, showing a video he has just received from the Jabalia refugee camp: a group of elderly people sharing a tray of mezze in a corner, while columns of smoke rise in the background. “They just expect to die at any moment, and they do so without pain or fear, just with pride.”

The questions that the West asks regarding the war — Will the conflict escalate? Is the two-state solution still viable? — make the friends grimace with skepticism. “Do we fear that the war will spread to the West Bank? Even more so, you mean?” Zoheir asks rhetorically. “Until now Gaza was being bombed every few years [in reference to the wars of 2008-2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021], but in the West Bank, war is an everyday occurrence. There is a trickle of deaths, demolitions of houses [of detained Palestinians], daily arrests. A silent war, without headlines like this, but let no one explain to us what war is, because we already know it.”

“Should we fold our arms and wait for death?”

About 700,000 Muslims live in New York, compared to a population of 1.1 million Jews, the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. There are around 9,000 Palestinians, although the number could be significantly higher because they all arrived in the United States with passports from the country where they lived as refugees. And then there are the new generations, born and raised in the Big Apple but with a family bond with Palestine that the war has helped reinforce.

Although this week saw the election of the second Muslim councilor to the City Council, his importance from an electoral point of view is limited. Not so in swing states like Michigan, where the vote of the Arab-Muslim community was decisive for Biden’s victory in 2020. More than 200,000 registered Muslim voters live in Michigan, with 146,000 of them voting in 2020, according to Emgage, a political lobbying group for American Muslims. The Democratic candidate won by 155,000 votes over Donald Trump, but today they are tied in the polls, and Biden is even trailing the Republican. Although Trump is even less convincing to the Arab community — no Muslim in the United States can forget the immigration ban imposed in the first stages of his presidency on a dozen Arab nations — the collective support for Biden is suffering, not only because of the White House’s determined commitment to the war, but also because of the message he addressed to the nation on the third day of the offensive against Gaza, considered in Israel to be more Zionist than that of many other Zionists; for the decision to veto a resolution in the U.N. Security Council to create “humanitarian pauses,” or for repeatedly discrediting the death tolls given by the authorities of the Gaza Strip.

Carteles en solidaridad con la población de Gaza, en un negocio de Bay Ridge (Nueva York).
Posters supporting the population of Gaza on the window of a business in Bay Ridge (New York).María Antonia Sanchez-Vallejo

Bay Ridge residents, merchants and community leaders say their anguish is only increasing, as reports of both anti-Palestinian and anti-Semitic attacks continue to increase. Mahmud Kassem, 36, who has two aunts in Gaza whose fate is unknown, has seen his Al Aqsa restaurant lose customers due to the war. His popular falafel and shawarma establishment, once a neighborhood hangout, began receiving devastating criticism online, in a move he considers orchestrated. “Fortunately, I still have my regular clients, including some Jews, but I don’t sell like I did before,” explains Kassem. His mother, who was visiting her sisters in Gaza City, managed to flee the enclave on October 7, taking refuge with a relative in East Jerusalem.

The business also sells protest T-shirts and keffiyeh, and he does not fear reprisals or attacks for his open support of Palestine, which is evident in the number of flags that decorate the premises. But it’s not just popular establishments that are showing their support for the cause: very close by, on the main avenue of the neighborhood, a luxury law firm has wrapped a golden representation of Justice in the Palestinian flag and a keffiyeh. “They are Nazis, they want to exterminate us, they are not normal people,” says Kassem about the Israelis. “The way they behave towards us has never been humane,” he insists, pointing out that the Islamophobia triggered by the 9/11 attacks has now been renewed and is stronger than ever following the Hamas attacks.

“Palestinians are not terrorists; like all human beings, we want the best for our loved ones, to live in peace and to prosper if possible, but there is no one in Gaza who can do that: everyone has lost someone, I myself have lost several of my cousins in the war of 2014, now entire families are dying... What do they expect us to do? Fold our arms and wait for death?” asks Kassem. “If Gaza falls, Palestine is history.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition


More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
_
_