A general strike called after the US blocked a UN resolution calling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza took hold across New Jersey’s Arab American communities on Monday, in the latest expression of opposition to Israel’s devastating military offensive in the Palestinian territory.
Along Palestine Way in the city of Paterson, dozens of business owners, community leaders and families with young children, swathed in keffiyeh scarves against the cold, heeded the call from Palestinian leaders to show, in symbolic, political and economic terms, deepening anger and distress about an Israeli military operation that began after a Hamas cross-border attack on 7 October.
“We hope it sends a message that Muslims are unified, the public is unified and we’re all on the same page, and that we’re willing to sacrifice our business to make our voices heard,” said Dr Jabeen Ahmed, a local pharmacy owner and member of several state medical boards.
Ahmed described a range of feelings sparked by the images coming out of Gaza and knowledge that hundreds of Palestinians are being killed and injured in the bombardment daily. Her ex-husband, Amjad Abukwaik, counted 65 members of his family and extended family who had been killed.
“There is a vast array of feelings – anger, frustration, sadness, desperation, and feelings of guilt at the privilege of having meals and access to healthcare while people are starving and talking about how their children had died from starvation,” Ahmed said. “As a mother and a humanitarian, it’s so painful to witness.”
Diab Mustafa, chairman of the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, a suburb of Paterson, said the general strike was focused on bringing awareness to what was happening after the US vetoed a resolution on Friday in the UN security council, backed by 90 member states, for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire”.
Hamas attacked southern Israel on 7 October, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, after which Israel retaliated in a campaign that has killed more than 18,000 people, mostly civilians and many of them children, in Gaza.
“As Americans, and especially as Muslims, we need to speak up – and as we believe that most American people are asking for a ceasefire,” Mustafa said. “We need to put an end to this killing and to find a political solution that gives the Palestinian people their rights, their independence, their rights of self-determination. We feel that the administration is not listening to us and it’s not listening to the people on the streets.”
Mustafa acknowledged it had become difficult to protest Israel’s action in Gaza without being labelled antisemitic. “Some people will call this antisemitic, but what our community is doing has nothing to do antisemitism. In fact, the Jewish community has been more vocal in calling for a ceasefire than we have.”
As Monday’s general strike took effect in New Jersey, it was already in effect across the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, and the Lebanese government also announced that it would shut down all government offices and institutions.
Abukwaik, owner of the Sheefa Pharmacy on Palestine Way, told a crowd that the situation in Gaza was affecting him and many others in a profoundly personal way. “It’s with heavy hearts that we make this statement knowing that the pain and suffering is far and beyond our own personal tragedy. We make this small gesture of solidarity with those who have been killed and continue to die. This is not a political statement we’re making today, it’s a human one, because we believe in the power of compassion and empathy that we all share.”
But politics is never far beneath the surface of this distress.
Raed Odeh, a barbershop owner and the deputy mayor of Paterson, said the message of the strike was to demand a ceasefire to save the Palestinian civilians. “We have tried hard, as Americans, as Muslims, as Arab Americans, as Palestinians, to send this message,” Odeh said. “Elections are coming soon, in 11 months, and with the vote between Democrats and Republicans so close, I think our voice will be heard.”
He added: “If we don’t hear from you, you will hear from us.”
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