Students take calls for a Gaza ceasefire from campus to Harrisburg | Pittsburgh City Paper

Students take calls for a Gaza ceasefire from campus to Harrisburg

click to enlarge Protestors carry Palestinian flags and a placard with names of children killed in the conflict. Some were as young as 1.
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Protestors march down Grant St. during a funeral march for Palestine on Dec. 2, 2023.

Even before the temporary truce between Israel and Hamas ended last Friday, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Pittsburgh were prepared.

"During the temporary ceasefire, we planned more actions, anticipating that Israel would resume its bombardment of Gaza once the truce concluded," SJP's vice president Elyanna Sharbaji tells Pittsburgh City Paper. Sharbaji, who has a Syrian background, was one of the students who helped "revive" the club at the beginning of the semester.

Their work has been a bright spot for locals dismayed by the ongoing war in Gaza. Since Israel retaliated for Hamas' brutal Oct. 7 attack with what many observers call an indiscriminate bombing campaign with disregard for the lives of civilians, journalists, and medical professionals, SJP has coordinated with diverse groups to plan walkouts, make art and signage, and otherwise keep Palestine in the local conversation. The group has remained vigilant even as finals and winter break approach.

Sharbaji and other SJP organizers say a main driver of their activism is a fear of "another Nakba." Judy Kanafani, SJP at Pitt's co-president, is a Palestinian American whose family has firsthand experience of exile.

"My family was forcibly kicked out of Palestine in 1948 [during the Nakba], so they had to take refuge in Syria," Kanafani tells City Paper. Most of the family has been unable to return. Kanafani also understands the challenges of speaking out.

"My father’s uncle, Ghassan Kanafani, was a famous journalist in Palestine and was murdered by Israeli forces along with his 17-year-old niece," she shares. "Growing up hearing about these injustices, I was forced to educate myself about the conflict at a young age so I could stand up for the mistreatment of my people."

In conjunction with other groups including the Pittsburgh Palestine Solidarity Committee, Kanafani, Sharbaji, and others are planning to take their arguments to Harrisburg on Sunday, Dec. 10. The purpose of the rally, per a press release, is to "to amplify demands to [U.S.] Senator [Bob] Casey, [U.S. Sen. John] Fetterman and Governor Josh Shapiro to support a ceasefire and to advocate humanitarian assistance in Gaza while calling on Pennsylvania leadership to do more to support Palestinians in Pennsylvania."

Sharbaji says the collective call for peace "isn't about religion." She says Jewish and Black protestors, the "LGBTQ+ community, Latinos and Hispanics, Middle Easterners and North Africans, Arabs, Muslims, [and] Christians" were all present at demonstrations such as SJP's well-attended Oct. 20 march. She urges Pennsylvanians ambivalent about the war to make a distinction between the millions of civilians living there and the actions of Hamas.

"People have nothing to do with what their government is doing," she says. (This distinction between people and power is also notable in the fractured Israeli political landscape, where some families of hostages taken by Hamas are incensed at the Netanyahu administration's inability or unwillingness to free their loved ones.)

Kanafani says there's little room for ambiguity on the issue given the war's disproportionate impact on children, who make up about half of the Gaza Strip's population.

"It’s different when you have had family members and friends killed," she tells CP. "As someone who is directly affected by this conflict and someone who also has friends who have their fathers and mothers and siblings still living in Palestine and getting actively bombed and murdered, there is no such thing as being 'on the fence' for this."

Kanafani encourages people to inform themselves and stay updated on the issue to understand its history and global importance — and the ramifications of the Israel Defense Forces' campaign, which has expanded to parts of southern Gaza previously declared "safe zones."

"Look at the human rights obstructions caused by the Israeli government. Compare the deaths of Palestinians to Israelis in the past years, and focus on this year alone," Kanafani urges. "Then ask yourself — how can anyone support a genocide against innocent civilians, and what can you do to speak out against it?"

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
21 images

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson