Roughly a hundred anti-war protesters and other sympathizers with the Palestinian cause descended on the White House last night, demanding that President Obama forcefully call on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop the Israeli attack on Gaza.
As I arrived, a smaller phalanx of supporters of the Israeli Operation Pillar of Defense—no larger than twenty-five people—stood across from the larger protest, standing directly in front of the White House gates, almost as if to claim Obama as being on their side. Draped in Israeli flags, they chanted, "Stop the Rockets!" and broke out into curious chants of "USA!" Within a few minutes of my arrival, this group of Netanyahu supporters marched away.
The Palestinian supporters then moved up to the gates of the White House, chanting, "Free, Free Palestine!" These protesters were a mix of young and old, and around a quarter appeared to be of Arab or South Asian ancestry.
One demonstrator carried a large American flag. He identified himself as Mike Reitz, a federal employee who lives in the area. He said he first got interested in Palestinian issues during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. He noted that American coverage of the war was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Israeli side, but when he would watch BBC and foreign networks, he was able to see the point of view of the other side. "Our support for Israel has created a lot of [anti-American sentiment] in the world," he told me. For Americans to be educated, he said, "the most important thing is to read Jimmy Carter's book," referring to Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
Lena Ibrahim, a first-generation Palestinian-American, insisted that she was there more for human rights than ethnic solidarity. "I don't think my heritage has anything to do with this," she said. "America is funding these bombs." She said she first learned of the current flare up by seeing tweets from the IDF spokesperson's Twitter account.
Sam Jeweler, a Jewish-American and local community organizer, recounted how he was raised in a family that was staunchly supportive of the Israeli government. "I came from a family that supports Israel because of my religion," he said. "It is kind of weird, because my parents are very progressive on everything else. But on this issue it's very hard for them to wrap their minds around... people say pro-Israel, pro-peace. If you're pro-peace you should be on this side."
The crowd chanted loudly at the White House gates for almost an hour after I got there, and then slowly dispersed after one speaker urged them to reconvene at the State Department again at 6 P.M. tomorrow.
Looking at the typical grouping of kaffiyehs, Palestinian flags, and signs from hard-left groups like the ANSWER Coalition, it would be easy to laugh tonight's protest off as one of many that turns out carnivalesque crowds but makes little impact. But for many of the demonstrators who showed up tonight, the loud chants and angry signs are all they have to show their frustration with a conflict that never seems to end.
It's no secret to those who work in Washington that Palestinians have little political voice here. The long line of 100 to 0 pro-Israel votes in the Senate, the crowded American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conferences, and wild Israel-pandering during the presidential campaigns shows why the smaller group of pro-Israel protesters didn't feel compelled to stay and demonstrate for long. Simply put, Obama hasn't even called for a ceasefire, and you don't need to protest when you're already getting your way.