A handful of names echoed around the steps of Anteater Plaza, a small portion of the estimated 580 children killed due to the fighting between Israeli and Hamas forces in Gaza. A group of students and community members gathered to hold a candlelight vigil for the innocent lives lost in the violence that rocked Gaza from Dec. 27 to Jan. 20, a remembrance that lacked the noticeable accusatory edge of previous Gaza-themed events on campus.
The Society of Arab Students (SAS) held the vigil last Wednesday, drawing a crowd mostly comprised of UC Irvine students with several notable exceptions, including Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Manuel Gomez and Taher Herzallah, a student from University of California, Riverside with family in Gaza, both of whom spoke before the attentive crowd.
Guest speakers also included Jowan Qupty, a first-year undeclared student and the first Palestinian to win a gold medal in the junior-division, 200-meter breaststroke at the Maccabiah Games who now swims for UCI, and Sara Farsakh, a fourth-year political science major who lost five family members in Gaza.
SAS president Aayah Fatayerji, a third-year biological sciences major, acted as emcee and introduced the various guest speakers. Despite the uneasy ceasefire officially enacted on Jan. 18, Fatayerji pressed the audience with the latest statistics of the carnage from the conflict.
“As of last night, the death toll has been raised to 1,312 civilians, of which 580 were children,” Fatayerji said. “Sixteen thousand buildings were damaged and 100,000 [people] were left homeless, half of which are children. Sixty schools were damaged and 13 were U.N.-run schools. And if you can imagine, all of this is happening in a strip of land no larger than the area between Irvine and Long Beach – 25 miles.”
The overall message was of non-denominational mourning, emphasizing the humanitarian tragedy that transcended alignment.
“Tonight, regardless of race, regardless of your religion or your political perspective, we stand unified not only in the name of justice but also in the name of humanity,” Fatayerji said.
Gomez also cited the tragedy of the Gaza situation, but emphasized the potential for international change with Barack Obama’s inauguration the day before.
“For almost a decade now, Americans have been repeatedly warned that we are … at war. However, yesterday we celebrated a new vision not only for ourselves, but hopefully for the entire world,” Gomez said. “This is a vision that begins with preparing for peace. I want to believe that this is more than words. I want to believe that we are indeed on the precipice, on an important international paradigm shift away from conflict and war to one of dialogue, diplomacy and peace.”
Students taking the microphone shared small prayers before recounting experiences of family besieged in Gaza or other resonating testaments. Herzallah told the audience about his frenzied communications with family in Gaza.
“We ask ourselves, where is the humanity? Where is the humanity when the victim is viewed as the oppressor? Where is the humanity when human rights and relief organizations are bombed by Israel and the Palestinians are put to blame?” Herzallah said. “The last time I spoke on this campus, I had one wounded family member. I speak to you now with three dead family members, ages 21, 14 and 13.”
“The 13 and 14-year-old were brothers. Israel dropped a one-ton bomb on their building, and the building collapsed on them. The biggest mistake they ever made in their lives was to live in that building. They were both brutally murdered.” Herzallah said. “When I spoke to my relative to give him my condolences to the death of his two boys, he was very accepting of what had happened to him, of what had happened to them. He said that ‘there is no reason to be giving me your condolences. They died as martyrs.’ He was honored that his sons died as martyrs.”
Another student regaled the crowd with a story of a 10-year-old boy from Gaza his family had sponsored through a charity to travel to the United States to receive surgery for his faulty leg, crippled with a bullet from an Israeli guard and unable to grow with the rest of his body.
That charity, the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), was the humanitarian effort featured by the SAS vigil; donations were encouraged and over $400 was raised for humanitarian aid over the course of the night.
Anteaters for Israel President Isaac Yerushalmi, a fourth-year political science major, attended the event.
“As a Jew, human life is the most sacred and valuable thing,” Yerushalmi said. “It doesn’t matter whose life it is, Jew or Muslim or Palestinian – life is life. Loss of life is never a good thing, never a thing to celebrate. I’m here to mourn people who got caught in the midst of this conflict.”
Yerushalmi emphasized the need to proceed beyond blame and move forward together.
“This is not an issue of who’s right or who’s wrong. This is an issue of how do we move forward,” Yerushalmi said. “It’s really about trying to work towards a solution, to recognize that there are different perspectives.”
Anteaters for Israel was not approached to be involved in the event, Yerushalmi said.
Fatayerji was pleased with the night and estimated a turnout of between 175 and 200 people.
“I could say it was a success, not just by numbers but by the diverse people that attended,” Fatayerji said. “It brings a face to the conflict. It keeps it from being a number on TV.”
Other attendees also spoke highly of the event.
“It was a bit more emotional, you could say,” said Asmaa Hassanein, a third-year psychology and social behavior major and member of SAS. “It gave an outlet, a way for people who wanted to help, to help. There was the PCRF donation boxes, there was the Gaza action center for people to educate themselves … Now it’s really starting to settle in, the numbers are starting to be exposed [and people are seeing that] it’s time to take action and to see something done, see something changed rather than sit around and think it will happen on its own. It brought people together who may not have already heard about this conflict.”