Students anxious as Gaza conflict escalates

Every time sophomore Jessica Story logs on to Twitter, she holds her breath, hoping to hear from her friends living in Israel that they’re safe, even as violence in the region escalates.

“I see one of them online, and I have to make sure they’re OK, no matter how many times they roll their eyes and say, ‘Jess, I’m fine,’” the family science and theatre major said. “I’ll always check. It’s scary.”

Story is one of many students on the campus anxiously watching from afar as a long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict grows into more rocket fire and civilian deaths. The violence has been ongoing for about a week, and even though Hamas officials say a ceasefire is likely, students are still unsettled and hoping for a resolution before Israel launches a ground invasion in Gaza, which Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu said army reserves are prepared to do.

The conflict prompted Gov. Martin O’Malley to postpone a trip to Israel and Jordan this week that university President Wallace Loh was also scheduled to attend, Barry Bogage, executive director of the Maryland/Israel Development Center wrote in an email. The decision came after O’Malley spoke with Israeli and Jordanian ambassadors and decided he “did not want to be a distraction to our friends in the region during these difficult times,” according to the email. He plans to reschedule the trip for the spring.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has existed since the start of the 20th century, although its roots began even earlier. The conflict is expansive, but much of it centers around borders, settlements and control over Jerusalem.

While the region has been volatile for decades, tensions escalated this week and resulted in more than 140 deaths, mostly Palestinians, according to Reuters. The week of attacks began when an Israeli airstrike killed Hamas’ top military commander, following continued Palestinian rocket fire, according to several news reports.

Members of J Street UMD, one of the only groups to take a stance on the issue, promote a two-state solution to the conflict and support Israel’s right to self-defense but call for judicious restraint, which “encourages both sides to do everything they can to limit civilian casualties and calls for a ceasefire,” said Benjy Cannon, the group’s co-president.

Talks of a ceasefire aren’t enough, though, and the conflict continues to be painful to watch, especially as a Palestinion on a campus with a large Jewish population, said Kelly Salloum, a sophomore journalism major.

“It’s just hard when going on Facebook or going to class, and people are talking in favor of a ground assault on Palestine,” Salloum said. “On my people. On my family.”

Meeting violence with more violence is just moving the conflict backward, Salloum said.

“Throughout history, when violence was used to try to solve this problem, the peace — if any peace came of it — was not sustainable,” she said. “It just hurts more innocent people and disrupts more lives.”

Paul Scham, a Jewish studies visiting professor, said U.S. involvement could be critical in negotiating an end to the immediate situation.

“I think the American role is absolutely essential in trying to get Israeli acceptance of the ceasefire,” Scham said. “I think the U.S. should be active in Obama’s second term in trying to move the parties into a position where some peace processes are going on.”

Students with connections to both sides of the conflict said peace cannot be achieved if misinformation and media bias continue to prevail. Campus religious and cultural groups have been working to promote understanding of the issue by attending rallies and hosting cross-cultural events and prayer services.

Gabriella Kaiyal-Smith and members of UMD Students for Justice in Palestine attended a rally in Washington last Thursday to express concerns over U.S. funding of the Israeli defense program.

“In the past, President Obama has said, ‘Go out and make me do it,’” the junior animal sciences major said. “He cannot change something if the people do not show him they are demanding that change.”

Some student groups are encouraging interfaith events to foster communication and awareness between Muslim and Jewish students. Last weekend, the Jewish Muslim Alliance had its second annual twinning weekend, which pairs students from the two faiths to learn about each other’s religions. Some students said they realized their religions weren’t as different as they thought.

Wadiah Akbar, a freshman architecture major, said she and some of her Jewish friends went to a challah braiding event at Hillel. In return, her Muslim friends took their Jewish friends to a Muslim prayer service.

“We answered any questions they had and talked for at least an hour about our two religions,” Akbar said. “It’s ridiculous how many similarities we have.”

Some students view the conflict as more of a humanitarian issue than one centering around politics or religion. Osama Eshera, president of the UMD Muslim Students Association, said he does not want to generalize Jewish groups as Muslims were after 9/11.

“It’s really important to have some sort of dialogue and have some willingness to be open-minded,” Eshera said. “I think bringing this down toward a humanitarian issue without the baggage of other agendas or personal bias would really help us to learn what’s actually happening and what we can do to resolve the situation.”

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