Louis Sachs’ winter break ended early this year.
He spent his break in Golan, a city in Northern Israel, with 10 other students on an all-Jewish educational trip. Halfway through his time abroad, on Dec. 25, five Israeli soldiers from his group were called to duty. The soldiers left for Gaza the next day, beginning what officials in the Middle East are calling the most deadly attack in the on-going Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To date, the campaign has claimed the lives of 880 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, according to BBC reports.
When Sachs returned to Davis, he ran into some of his Palestinian friends, some of whom had family in Gaza. As a Religious Studies major in his third year, he has formed relationships with students from the country Israel has so long been in conflict with; but after the attacks those relationships grew tense.
“It’s a harsh situation,” Sachs said. “We each have our own opinions about this conflict and we’re all affected by it in different ways. We still talk, but never about the violence.“
Unlike the conflict overseas, Palestinians and Israelis on the Davis campus face each other day to day in a civil and peaceful environment. They sit next to each other in class, take the same buses to campus and live in the same apartment complexes – regardless of the devastating conflicts between their native countries. Groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Aggies for Israel (AFI) say they feel both motivated and challenged by the goal of attaining peace amongst their peers, if not their nations.
History of hostility
Formerly occupied by Israel, Gaza has primarily been Palestinian territory since 2005, when Israel agreed to a unilateral disengagement plan. All Israeli military was required to leave the 139 square mile strip of land, while maintaining control over Gaza’s borders and airspace to prevent weapons smuggling or attacks from being launched into Israel.
From there, however, the story takes two different forms. Where those in support of Israel say all military rule has completely left, those in support of Palestine disagree, insisting that Israeli military personnel have not left Gaza, and that inhabitants are still under the control of Israel.
“Gaza has been tightly sealed by Israel,” said Yussuf Salah, a senior political science major and president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA). “[The Israeli militants] constantly deny Gazans electricity, food, medicine and the ability to leave.“
In June of 2007, the Palestinian organization Hamas won power in Gaza through democratic elections. Internationally recognized as a terrorist organization for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, feelings about the government have been mixed. However, student groups on both sides of the issue condemn Hamas‘ tactics.
“Hamas is a terrorist organization, and they’re making life harder for the Palestinian people,” said Yoni Sassoon, a junior managerial economics major and former president of AFI. “Nobody wants a war, but Israel’s number one priority is to protect its people, and removing Hamas‘ capability of shooting is a step to protect them.“
But according to Nadia Kury, a junior history and political science major and member of SJP, Hamas may be an upgrade – as far as humanitarian aid – from the previous governing party, Fatah, which some Palestinians believed to be ineffectual and corrupt.
“Given the [social] situation in Gaza, Hamas is an improvement,” she said. “They were democratically elected and have done a lot for Gaza since the election. People tend to overlook the decrease in violence and the effort they put into school systems.“
In an arrangement brokered by Egyptian officials, Israel and Palestine agreed to a six-month ceasefire; however, Hamas officials say Israel did not abide by its obligations to ease blockades. Therefore Hamas did not renew the ceasefire agreement and fired nearly 20 rockets into the Israeli town of Sderot, killing several Israelis.
“It’s obvious that Israel would react to hostility the way they did,” said Sachs, who is also president of the Jewish fraternity on campus, Alpha Epsilon Pi. “Israel is standing up and defending herself.“
Faced with the emotions of war
However, where Sachs believes the attacks were an act of defense, Students from SJP and MSA believe the attacks were a disproportionate use of force, marking over 880 civilian deaths as reason enough to halt the attack.
“[The Israelis] are overlooking the helplessness of those in Gaza,” said Maya Ezzeddine, a senior environmental biology and management major and member of SJP. “It’s unjustified and immoral. I do not see it as defensive action.“
In reaction to the deaths in Gaza, students in support of Israel all expressed sympathy for the friends and family of their peers in Gaza. But their cause motivates them to look toward a solution. That solution, according to Jonathan Dunsworth, vice president of the Jewish Student Union, would be separate states for Israelis and Palestinians, with independent governments and a peaceful divide.
“It’s difficult to side with the power that has greater destructive ability when shown images of violence and civilian death,” said Dunsworth, a junior history major. “But what Israel wants is peace. We just want to get past this conflict.“
Resolution through education
Though UC Davis students of the conflicting nationalities believe there is little they can do to impact the conflict overseas, they have not given up on trying to make an impact on their peers.
“We’re not politicians, we’re just students, but we know from what’s happening to our families that this is a basic human rights issue,” Kury said. “We want to have protests, we want to have marches, we want person-to-person contact. We want more people to know the truth.“
SJP held a candle light vigil for the lives lost in their country last Wednesday, and marched to the Davis City Council meeting last Tuesday in hopes of gaining support on a local level. They also plan to co-host a program with MSA called “Apartheid in the Holy Land: Gaza 101” on Jan. 22.
Though the Israeli student groups have not yet led any kind of demonstration or meeting, they are interested in potential discussion on the issue. The Jewish Student Union, AFI, Hillel of Davis, Alpha Epsilon Pi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi will be holding an “Israel Awareness” meeting on Thursday, where they plan to discuss the conflict in the Middle East. The meeting is public, and members have welcomed students from SJP and MSA to participate in the discussion.
“I think the only solution is open discussion,” Sachs said. “We won’t always agree, but we can at least stay informed.“
Open discussion, said Isam Hararah, president of SJP, is something that would indeed help the situation on campus-if they can consent to the prospect of an end to fighting.
“We’re truly for an end to all forms of violence in this conflict that are causing innocent civilians to be killed,” said Hararah, a senior biological systems engineering major. “If that’s what the JSU is calling for as well, I don’t see why we can’t meet with them.“
One area of the conflict those on both sides can agree on is that staying informed is the best thing students can do at this point-which is not an easy task, as all groups have noticed what they call an information bias in most newspapers.
“If students have any interest in this, they should read as many reports from as many different sources as possible,” Dunsworth said. “They can come to their own conclusion after looking at all the different sources and maybe understand where the truth really is.“
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at email@example.com.