US Jewish groups call for ceasefire in Gaza

Dozens arrested after progressive Jewish groups rallied outside the White House to 'stop the genocide against Palestinians'

Activists calling for a ceasefire in Gaza protest outside the White House in Washington on Monday. Reuters
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Peace activists from US Jewish organisations are calling for an urgent end to the Israel-Gaza war that threatens the lives of thousands of Palestinians as the Israeli military prepares to invade the Gaza Strip.

The calls come after the administration of US President Joe Biden shifted its tone on the conflict from unfettered support of Israel to one that seeks to forestall a complete humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the White House on Monday, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, where more than 2,600 people have been killed – most of them civilians – since Israel began retaliatory strikes after Hamas militants killed more than 1,400 people in Israel on October 7.

Washington police arrested dozens of the demonstrators, who blocked off every entrance to the presidential residence.

One of the groups that led the demonstration, If Not Now, said it had organised the event to “stop the genocide against Palestinians” in Gaza.

“The horrific violence of the past week perpetrated by Hamas is unjustifiable,” the group said on X, formerly Twitter.

“But there is no world where mass violence and wanton retribution against an entire people is an acceptable answer.”

The pro-peace demonstrations kicked off what is expected to be a week of protests in the US capital, with further demonstrations planned for Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

The White House rally unfolded as Mr Biden announced he would visit Israel, where he is expected to reaffirm US solidarity with Israel and the “ironclad commitment to its security", US officials said. He will then travel to Jordan for talks on the Gaza humanitarian situation with King Abdullah II, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

Washington shifted its tone late last week as the Gaza death toll mounted. Mr Biden said “the extreme elements of Hamas don't represent all the Palestinian people. And I think that it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza.”

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said “terrorists like Hamas deliberately target civilians … democracies don't”.

And Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on a trip to Egypt “the way that Israel does this matters.”

But Washington has continued to supply and finance the Israeli army in its Gaza counter-offensive.

Jewish-American actor and playwright Wallace Shawn was among the demonstrators to lend his voice outside the White House and criticise US support for Israel.

“It’s one of the most deliberate cruelties inflicted on a people that I can remember that my own government has supported,” he said of the Israeli military action in Gaza.

Jewish-Americans are a largely liberal political bloc and the right-wing government in Israel has recently complicated the group’s relationship with Tel Aviv.

Americans for Peace Now (APN) has been among the Jewish-American organisations to lead demonstrations against the current Israeli government.

It expressed heartbreak over the Hamas attack and urged the Biden administration to demand an Israeli response that follows international law.

We “add our voice to President Biden’s and Secretary of Defence Austin’s call on Israel to obey international law and to do everything possible to avoid further civilian injury and death,” an APN statement read.

Emily Schaeffer Omer-man, an activist and human rights lawyer living in Maryland who holds US and Israeli citizenship, told The National violence against civilians should not lead to more violence against civilians.

“I don't believe that just because we condemn Hamas's acts that there should be any justification for committing additional crimes against humanity against Palestinian people,” said Ms Shaeffer Omer-man, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist Jewish-American organisation.

“I make a very, very strong distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian population at large."

Updated: October 17, 2023, 2:41 PM