Palestinian-Israel conflict sparks action, alarm in Metro Detroit

Demonstrations throughout Metro Detroit are planned this weekend as violence intensifies in the…

Palestinian-Israel conflict sparks action, alarm in Metro Detroit 1

Palestinian-Israel conflict sparks action, alarm in Metro Detroit 2

Palestinian-Israel conflict sparks action, alarm in Metro Detroit 3

The escalating conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is reverberating across the world and in Metro Detroit, stirring strong emotions among activists and community members who demand immediate action to defuse a situation they believe cannot be ignored.

“We have people under occupation. Now they’re being bombed,” said Khalid Turaani, a Palestinian-American activist based in West Bloomfield Township. “Are we going to be hostages to political expediency and convenience, and allow our government to get away with its inability to even condemn the killing of children with war planes?”

As the international spotlight focuses on the intensifying violence, demonstrators plan to take to the streets this weekend. Some organizations are struggling with how to address the topic, and residents with ties to the Middle East constantly comb news reports or social media posts bracing for the worst.

“I’m horrified,” said Jeannie Weiner, an Oakland County resident and former president at the regional Jewish Community Relations Council. “I have a lot of family and friends in Israel. I’m deeply concerned for their safety. I’m very troubled about the missiles and the fighting between Arabs and Jews in neighborhoods after so many efforts to build bridges in those communities.” 

Days of violence have pushed Israel into dealing with the most intense fighting it has ever had with Hamas while simultaneously coping with the worst Jewish-Arab violence inside the nation in decades. 

Israel called up 9,000 reservists Thursday to join its troops massed at the Gaza border, and an army spokesman spoke of a possible ground assault into the densely populated territory, though he gave no timetable. A day later, there was no sign of an incursion.

But early Friday, the Israeli military said air and ground troops struck Gaza in what appeared to be the heaviest attacks yet, and later hundreds of young demonstrators in multiple towns clashed with Israeli troops, who shot and killed at least 11 people.

The fighting first broke out late Monday when Hamas, claiming to be the defender of Jerusalem, fired a barrage of long-range rockets toward the city in response to what it said were Israeli provocations. Israel quickly responded with a series of airstrikes.

Israel has since attacked hundreds of targets in Gaza. The strikes set off scores of earth-shaking explosions across the densely populated territory. Gaza militants have fired nearly 2,000 rockets into Israel, bringing life in the southern part of the country to a standstill. 

By Friday, the toll from the fighting in Gaza rose to 126 killed, including 31 children and 20 women, with 900 wounded, according to the Health Ministry. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.

The developments prompted U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American from Detroit, to issue a statement this week with U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and André Carson of Indiana, all Democrats. The lawmakers criticized American aid for the Israeli government “with no conditions or accountability for wanton human rights abuses and continuing illegal seizures of Palestinian land.”

“For decades, we have paid lip service to a Palestinian state, while land seizures, settlement expansion, and forced displacement continue, making a future home for Palestinians more and more out of reach,” they wrote. “It is long past time we finally take action to protect Palestinian human rights and save lives.”

But U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, blamed Hamas for the outbreak of hostilities in a statement, while mourning the “loss of innocent lives” on both sides.

“I strongly condemn the rockets fired by Hamas into Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and southern Israel and call on the international community to promote peace, calm and security,” said Stevens, who is Jewish. “Israel is an unequivocal ally of the United States and I support its rights to defend itself against terrorist attacks.”

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “rocket fire from Hamas and Islamic Jihad is depraved and intolerable, and Israel has the right to protect Israelis. … At the same time, we must recognize that Israel’s retaliatory strikes should not be grossly disproportionate under universally recognized laws of war.

“As a Jew who rejects tribalism of all kinds and takes seriously the duty to love the stranger as myself even and especially under the most difficult of circumstances, we must do everything we can to halt the killing of innocent civilians on both sides.”

The upheaval was the focus of a sermon Turaani planned to deliver Friday to worshipers at the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills.

He noted it also precedes the 73rd anniversary on Saturday of Israel’s establishment, which Palestinians consider their “nakba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes. Turaani said he hoped international attention would shift perspectives on what he believes is an unfair system.

“It is unfortunate that most of the stories that are covering what is going on in Palestine right now (are) reading the story from the middle and talking about the Palestinians are launching rockets on the Israelis, when they were silent for three weeks when the Palestinians were enduring the abuses on some of the holiest nights of the year,” he told The Detroit News. 

The current violence began last month in Jerusalem, where Israeli police tactics during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers ignited protests and clashes with police. A focal point of clashes was Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims.

Israel regards Jerusalem in its entirety as its capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director for Metro Detroit’s Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee, said Hamas has taken advantage of a sensitive situation amid political upheaval in Israel.

“It’s tragic all the innocent lives that are lost,” he said. “I am really sad about the fighting between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. Every lover of Israel that I speak to is heartbroken that that’s happened. … My Jewish brothers and sisters are paying a price, but the Palestinians are paying the highest price for this war of Hamas.”

This week, Lopatin and Mahmoud Al-Hadidi, the Michigan Muslim Community Council board chairman, co-signed a letter urging calm.

“We are always saddened when people are not allowed to pray and worship and live their day-to-day lives in peace. Thus, we pray for the safety and security of all who live in the Holy Land — Muslims, Jews, and Christians and for all the victims of violence,” they wrote.

Lopatin and other Jews who have forged ties with Michigan Muslims through interfaith efforts expect those bonds to endure regardless of unrest overseas and passionate disagreements over the cause.

“This goes deep to the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, and it goes deep to Jews, but we have a wonderful relationship here in Detroit,” the rabbi said. “We have a lot we need to partner on… so I hope that we can really be a beacon of hope to the world and show how beautiful it is to come together.”

Others see the clashes thousands of miles away as a call to action.

On Sunday, groups including the New Generation for Palestine are organizing a “March for Jerusalem” in Dearborn.

“We need the people to speak about this and help us make real change,” said Mahmoud Abuqalbain, a Metro Detroiter and executive board member with NGP helping organize the event.

The 26-year-old engineer was born in Jordan to parents who fled Jerusalem and argues Palestinians there have lost their rights.

“A lot of people are being hurt,” Abuqalbain said. “We need to bring awareness to the issue and we need to deliver the message of the racism the Palestinians have been facing. …We need foreign forces to create pressure and sanctions on the Israeli occupation to stop the ethnic cleansing.”

From a flurry of online messages to community conversations, the spotlight on the longstanding conflict resonates with many in southeast Michigan, said Rula Aoun, director at the Dearborn-based nonprofit Arab-American Civil Rights League. “It’s one of the most delicate political situations that I’ve known in my lifetime. People are not going to let this go.”

The issue has also revealed differing responses among locals eyeing the events.

The University of Michigan Central Student Government issued a Monday statement that supported Palestinians, called on the Ann Arbor school to divest from some Israeli companies and criticized what it called “Israeli settler-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid.”

The next day, the University of Michigan Hillel, which supports Jewish students, responded to what members described as “a one-sided statement on the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict, furthering divisiveness among students” that left many students “extremely hurt.”

“This one-sided statement was released while rockets were being launched into Israel, with no consideration of how Jewish students with a connection to Israel may be feeling,” the UM Hillel Undergraduate Governing Board said in a statement. “We are disheartened that Jewish students were not considered when writing and releasing this statement and that it ignored the deep connection felt between Jewish students and Israel. … Today, our hearts remain in the East as we follow the news of escalating violence with great concern and pray for peace for Israelis and Palestinians.”

Associated Press contributed.

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