July 15, 2024

Washington, DC – Jeers erupted at a pro-Israel rally in Washington, DC, when political analyst Van Jones called for the bombing of Gaza to stop.

Jones had condemned anti-Semitism and voiced support for Israel in his remarks to the March for Israel, a demonstration that brought tens of thousands of protesters on Tuesday to the National Mall, a park in the heart of the United States capital.

But it was Jones’s proclamation that he was a “peace guy” that drew rumbles from the crowd.

“I pray for peace — no more rockets from Gaza and no more bombs falling down on the people of Gaza. God, protect the children,” he said.

The initial boos against him quickly turned into chants of “no ceasefire”. The crowd had gathered to back Israel’s war in Gaza and to call for the release of more than 200 captives held by the Palestinian group Hamas.

On October 7, Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, killing more than 1,200 people. In response, Israel has led a military offensive against Gaza, a small, densely-packed Palestinian strip that is home to 2.3 million people. More than 11,000 Palestinians have died.

Tuesday’s demonstration follows a major protest by Palestinian rights advocates in Washington, DC, 10 days earlier.

But this march drew top members of the US Congress from both major parties, including the Speaker of the House of Representative Mike Johnson and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, both of whom addressed the crowd.

“The calls for a ceasefire are outrageous,” Johnson said. His statement was met with more chants of “no ceasefire”, this time approvingly.

Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries spoke at the rally as well. So did John Hagee, a right-wing Christian pastor who has been accused of stoking both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Hagee came under fire in 2008 after an old sermon resurfaced in which he described Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a “hunter” sent by God to push Jewish people to move to Israel.

The administration of President Joe Biden was also represented at the rally by Deborah Lipstadt, the US envoy to combat anti-Semitism.

The broad ideological spectrum at the protest highlighted the US’s bipartisan support for Israel.

“Bring them home,” the protesters chanted, referring to the captives in Gaza, as they waved Israeli and American flags.

Woman holds a sign that says, "From the River to the Sea, is where Israel will always be"
A demonstrator holds up a sign at a pro-Israel protest in Washington, DC, on November 14 [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

Leading rights groups have accused Israel of violating international law during the war and attacking civilian targets, including residential neighbourhoods, hospitals and schools housing displaced people. United Nations experts have also warned of the risk of genocide against the Palestinian people.

When asked about the casualties in Gaza, many demonstrators expressed sympathy for Palestinians, but they blamed Hamas for the violence, accusing the group of using civilians as “human shields”.

Many held signs proclaiming Israel’s boundary from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The messages aimed to counter the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — something Palestinian rights supporters consider an aspirational call for freedom and equality.

Al Jazeera spoke to some of the protesters at Tuesday’s event. Here’s what they had to say:

Stu Weiss: ‘What occupation?’

Stu Weiss, a protester from New Jersey, held a sign saying that the 1,200 Israelis killed on October 7 would amount to 48,000 Americans relative to the size of the population.

Weiss said his message aims to make people think about the scale of the atrocities committed by Hamas. He added that Hamas is also responsible for the Palestinian deaths in Gaza, claiming that the group prevented people from fleeing south.

In reality, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been displaced from the north of Gaza, and Israel has continued to bomb southern towns where it told residents to go. An estimated one out of every 200 Palestinians in Gaza has died.

Weiss said that, by the end of the conflict, he would like to see “Hamas gone and Israelis living in peace with the Palestinian people”.

“They’re taught to hate Jews and Israel,” he said of Palestinians. Asked whether Israel’s occupation of Gaza contributed to hostility in the conflict, Weiss responded, “What occupation?”

Pro-Israel protester with a shirt featuring the Kahanist movement symbol of a clenched fist against a yellow star
A demonstrator at the pro-Israel rally wears a shirt featuring the symbol of the hardline Kahanist movement [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

James McLaughlin: ‘They’re coming for us next’

James McLaughlin, a demonstrator from Philadelphia, said there can never be a ceasefire until Israel destroys Hamas.

“They’re coming for the Jews. And they’re coming for us next — all of Western civilisation. So as a bulwark, Western civilisation is the bedrock of my faith. I totally stand with Israel,” McLaughlin told Al Jazeera.

He displayed a sign that read, “Christians stand with Israel.”

Rima: ‘Israel is our land’

Rima, a protester who chose to identify by her first name only, carried a large green placard saying, “From the river to the sea, Israel is all you’ll see.”

“Israel is our indigenous land, and it’s always going to be ours. This is where Jews come from. They were there before Arabs. They were there before anyone else,” Rima told Al Jazeera.

Woman holds green sign that reads, "From the River to the Sea, Israel is what you will always see."
A protester holds a sign on November 14 that reads, ‘From the river to the sea, Israel is what you’ll always see’ [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

Evan: ‘Hard to imagine a good outcome’

Evan, a demonstrator who also wanted to be identified by his first name only, waved a large Israeli flag and stressed that Hamas started the war.

He voiced support for what he called Israel’s “right to defend itself”. Still, he expressed a grim outlook for the future as he reflected on what would happen after the current conflict.

“It’s hard to imagine a good outcome, no matter what. Israel has probably created another generation of people who will hate them. And that’s a consequence of war. Anyone who’s lost a parent, a child, a loved one, a cousin — killed in a thing — cannot be expected to embrace or forgive,” Evan said.

“It’s unfortunate. But I can’t sit here and say to Israel, ‘You have to get out now.’”

Minna Shezaf: Conflict is ‘terrifying’

Minna Shezaf, a demonstrator from Washington, DC, who has lived in Israel, said she was at the rally to express solidarity with Israel and praised Biden’s handling of the crisis as “admirable”.

Shezaf added that the conflict could take a “terrifying” turn if the armed group Hezbollah gets further involved in the war.

The Lebanese group has been launching attacks on Israeli troops almost daily in support of Gaza. Israel, in turn, has been retaliating by bombing areas across its shared border with Lebanon.

Asked about the mounting death toll in Gaza, Shezaf said, “It’s terrible what Hamas is doing to the people of Gaza. It’s a human rights violation.”

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