PORTLAND, Maine — A crowd of about 80 gathered in Monument Square on Friday to speak out about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, as Israel moved ahead with a ground offensive and casualties continue to rise.
“We want peace, but we know there will never be peace as long as Israel is occupying Palestinian land, as long as Israel is killing, on average, two Palestinian children per week,” said Bob Schaible, chairman of the human rights organization Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights.
The now 10-day battle began after the bodies of three Israeli teenagers were discovered June 30. It has been reported they were kidnapped and killed while hitchhiking on the West Bank.
Israel has blamed Hamas, a Palestinian independence movement viewed as a terrorist organization by Israel and most Western nations, for the deaths and has since been launching attacks on the Gaza Strip. The attacks have resulted in many civilian casualties.
“They’re not killing Hamas. They’re not killing terrorist leaders as they claim they are. They’re killing children,” said Nimer Farhood, 19, of Portland. “Israel has a military. Palestine does not. It’s not a war if one side is being bombed and killed constantly.”
Farhood, a Palestinian-American who moved to Portland with his mother when he was 14 years old. She recently graduated from the University of Southern Maine.
While the majority of people in the square were protesting Israeli actions, several showed up to support them.
Jeffrey Lombard traveled from New Hampshire to defend the militant actions of Israel, saying peace eventually will come.
“We’re here to support Israel in its quest for peace and to eliminate the cancer of Hamas,” Lombard said.
According to Lombard, Israel showed great patience when faced with early attacks from Hamas, reaching out to the group with the hope of a treaty.
“But Hamas said ‘you die,’ and they continued to shell and fire rockets at Israeli cities,” Lombard said. “They are an ultra-extremist Muslim group of fighters that have made it their mission in life and would literally die to eliminate every Jew in Israel and push the state of Israel into the sea. They’re like Nazis.”
Schaible disagreed, saying that the attempts to eliminate Hamas were not worth the lives of innocent Palestinians.
“Hamas is the whipping boy for people like these gentlemen,” Schaible said. “Hamas is called a terrorist group. Terrorism is committed by those who kill civilians. Israel kills civilians at a rate approaching 10- or 12-to-1. So the real terrorist is the Israeli state.”
Lombard attempted to speak over Schaible and take his microphone to address the crowd, but people in the crowd shouted at him until he stopped.
“We didn’t come here to have a shouting match; we came here to educate people,” Schaible said, adding the pro-Israel community was welcome to host its own rally and pay for its own equipment if it wanted to.
“We just wanted to come show our presence and share our words which will hopefully elucidate the situation,” Ken Kowalchek, a friend of Lombard, said. “The conflict is here because one side wants the other side dead, and that really hasn’t sunk into a lot of people’s heads, otherwise they would be here with us in support of Israel.”
Schaible said the group would likely be hosting another event soon and would be participating in a program to send postcards to Congress asking the government to condemn the actions of Israel.
“I have a lot of mixed emotions,” Farhood said when the protest was winding down and people were beginning to leave. “I have a lot of family still in Palestine, a lot of friends. Basically, my life is there. But it’s good to know that there are different cultures, religions and backgrounds that support you. That can be helpful in boosting the spirits of Palestinians and also to raise awareness and get the truth out.”
An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that Nimer Farhood immigrated to the United States. He is a U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent. A photo caption also should have identified his mother, Maha Jaber, as a Palestinian-American, not an immigrant.