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Amid intensifying violence in Middle East, thousands rally downtown in support of Palestinians: ‘The death, the destruction must end’

“We cannot — indeed we must not — characterize these events within the context of war or religious conflict or who shot the first rocket,” said Tarek Khalil, of American Muslims for Palestine. “This is not only false and misleading, but dangerous and dehumanizing.

Supporters hold up flags and posters during a rally and march in support of Palestinians at Congress Plaza Garden in the Loop in response to an ongoing assault between Israelis and Palestinians in the middle east, Sunday, May 16, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Supporters hold up flags and posters during a rally and march Sunday at Congress Plaza Garden downtown in support of Palestinians in response to escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

On the heels of Israeli airstrikes that killed 42 people in the deadliest single attack in the country’s renewed aggression with Palestine, thousands rallied downtown Sunday to decry what organizers described as an “ethnic cleansing” and to push for Palestinian independence.

Speakers and attendees gathered at the intersection of Ida B. Wells Drive and Michigan Avenue, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and America’s military aid to the country. Tarek Khalil, an attorney and activist with American Muslims for Palestine, characterized the violence carried out by Israel as an ongoing “crime against humanity.”

“We cannot — indeed we must not — characterize these events within the context of war or religious conflict or who shot the first rocket,” Khalil said to a massive throng of demonstrators. “This is not only false and misleading but dangerous and dehumanizing.”

Supporters hold up flags and posters during a rally and march in support of Palestinians in the Loop in response to an ongoing assault between Israelis and Palestinians in the middle east, Sunday, May 16, 2021.
Supporters hold up flags and posters during a rally and march in the Loop on Sunday in support of Palestinians in response to ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The latest outbreak of violence began in east Jerusalem last month, when Israeli police raided al-Aqsa Mosque and injured Palestinian worshippers during Ramadan, with Israeli authorities’ threatening removal of dozens of Palestinian families to be replaced by Jewish settlers.

Hamas, the militant group that operates in Gaza, began firing rockets toward Jerusalem on Monday, and Israel began its assault on Gaza.

Hundreds of Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 188 Palestinians, including 55 children and 33 women, with 1,230 people wounded. Some of the 3,100 rocket attacks launched from Gaza have killed eight people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier.

Following the latest attacks, Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia noted the conflict has now “reached a new boiling point” that has given way to “murder and bloodshed with no immediate end in sight.”

“The death, the destruction must end,” the Chicago Democrat told Sunday’s crowd. “We must end the bloodshed and the U.S. must do its part to bring about a ceasefire.”

During his speech, Garcia urged U.S. and world leaders to condemn Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “aggression” and called for “equal justice, equal freedom and the right to self-determination for the people of Palestine.”

The demonstrators made their way through the downtown area, shutting down traffic on Michigan Avenue and other streets while remaining peaceful and jovial despite the grim circumstances. Many waved Palestinian flags and wore traditional head coverings, with some dancing atop bus stop shelters and subway entryways as the demonstration went on.

Anees Muatan, 42, of Bridgeview, stood atop his SUV waving a Palestinian sash as the demonstrators returned to the starting point. Muatan, who is of Palestinian descent but was born in America, said he’s “sick of the same” and slammed the Israeli government for carrying out attacks that victimized women and children.

Anees Muatan stands atop his SUV during a downtown protest Sunday in support of Palestine.
Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

“It’s the same thing going on, over and over again. It’s called the holy land for every religion. Why must you guys just take over?” he said of Israel.

The Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest, the Chicago-based liaison between the residents of the region and the country, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a televised address, Netanyahu said the attacks were continuing at “full force” and would “take time.” Israel “wants to levy a heavy price” on the Hamas militant group, he said.

Contributing: Associated Press