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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators express free speech concerns amid Israel-Hamas war

Sarah Maswadeh (center) protests in support of Palestinians wearing a keffiyeh, a scarf representing Palestinian solidarity. (Zarin Ismail/WUFT News)
Sarah Maswadeh (center) protests in support of Palestinians wearing a keffiyeh, a scarf representing Palestinian solidarity. (Zarin Ismail/WUFT News)

Farrah Maswadeh doesn’t wish to live in the United States anymore. As a 25-year-old Palestinian American who grew up in Jordan and now lives in Gainesville, she said she was disgusted to live in the country after seeing the behavior of U.S. news outlets and people around her during the Israel-Hamas war.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Gainesville like Maswadeh are concerned about their free speech rights following pushback from federal, state and university officials amid the Israel-Hamas war, which started Oct. 7 after the Hamas militant group attacked Israel.

“We do feel really hopeless,” Maswadeh said.

She said she started sensing dehumanization of Palestinians in America after the Oct. 7 attack.

Her sister, Sarah Maswadeh, said she used to wear a keffiyeh — a black and white patterned scarf symbolizing Palestinian solidarity — in public.

“Before Oct. 7 … nobody would look at me,” Sarah Maswadeh, 25, said. “People would compliment it.”

But when she and her sister attended a pro-Palestinian protest Oct. 23, she said passersby screamed expletives at them, stuck their middle fingers up and called them “terrorists.” Sarah Maswadeh said she now stopped wearing the keffiyeh for the sake of her safety.

The U.S. House voted Nov. 7 to censure Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan for her support for Palestinians. Republican Rep. Rich McCormick of Georgia introduced the resolution Nov. 6 to censure Tlaib — the only Palestinian American in Congress — for “promoting false narratives” regarding the Oct. 7 attack.

The resolution also said Tlaib’s use of the phrase “from the river to the sea” called “for the destruction of the state of Israel.”

However, Farrah Maswadeh said she felt Tlaib’s censure called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians — rather than Israelis — from around the world, including the United States.

Some supporters of Palestinians have sensed limits on their free speech rights through statements beyond the federal government, specifically from University of Florida president Ben Sasse and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Sasse expressed support for Israel in a letter to Jewish University of Florida alumni Oct. 10, where he condemned Hamas for its attacks on Israel. The letter came a day after the stampede during an evening vigil for Israel in UF’s Turlington Plaza, where mass panic occurred after a student fainted.

“We will protect our students and we will protect speech,” Sasse, a former U.S. senator, said in his letter. “Our Constitution protects the rights of people to make abject idiots of themselves.”

The UF chapter of the pro-Palestinian student organization Students for Justice in Palestine posted a message on Instagram to its members Oct. 16 saying several UF faculty showed sympathy only for those mourning the Hamas attacks. The post received over 950 likes.

“Their sympathies have not been extended to those who are feeling distraught for the people of Gaza who are facing ethnic genocide by the IDF,” the message read. “Violence against all innocent life is unacceptable.”

DeSantis and Florida’s state university system ordered universities Oct. 24 to dismantle state university chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, saying the organization was supporting Hamas for its attack on Israel. The UF chapter held a walkout and vigil in support of Palestinians the next day.

The American Civil Liberties Union revealed Thursday that the UF Students for Justice in Palestine chapter filed a lawsuit against the state university system’s chancellor, Ray Rodrigues, saying the state university system violated students’ First Amendment rights with its order to dismantle the pro-Palestinian student organization’s Florida chapters. The lawsuit sought a preliminary injunction that would prevent the order from going into effect.

Roy Holler, a UF assistant professor of Israeli studies, said institutions, such as the state university system, and individual people are responsible for free speech limits on both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators.

“Posters of missing kidnapped Israelis are being constantly removed from bulletin boards and wherever they’re posted around campus,” Holler said. “The removal of the posters of the kidnapped Israelis are just people — students — from the community.”

He said he was heartbroken to see people and the media use terms like “genocide” and “colonialism” to describe Israel’s actions in the war.

“The situation in the Middle East is beyond complicated to be explained through those words,” he said.

Holler said he feels the media has set up a flawed, binary understanding of the war. To remediate this, he said people shouldn’t rely on one news source and get out of their echo chamber when using social media.

“Jewish Americans are not proxies for the Israeli government and may even hold views in opposition to its policies,” Holler said. “No one should face hostility for their Jewish appearance, just as no Muslim should feel threatened or fearful for wearing a hijab on campus.”

Contrary to Holler’s beliefs, Sarra Tlili, a UF associate professor of Arabic language and literature, said the Israeli government’s actions are characteristic of a genocide.

“Look at the number of casualties and what is being targeted by the Israeli bombing,” Tlili said.

At least 11,000 people — two-thirds of them being women and children — in Gaza were killed by Israeli airstrikes in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war as of Monday, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health.

Al Jazeera reported that Israeli airstrikes hit schools, mosques, hospitals and ambulances in Gaza. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to U.S. President Joe Biden in an Oct. 18 meeting that Hamas was hiding behind civilians in Gaza, using them as human shields.

About 1,200 people were killed in Israel — most of them from the Oct. 7 Hamas attack — and 239 hostages were taken into Israel by Hamas, according to Israel's foreign ministry. The foreign ministry revised the official death toll Friday from 1,400 to 1,200.

Tlili said a language gap exists between Americans and Palestinians that might pose accuracy issues in the circulation of information. However, she said younger people learning English in Palestinian territories and the Arab population in the United States may help to bridge the gap.

“I’m not saying that things have changed dramatically,” she said, “but a change is starting to occur.”

Though she thinks free speech isn’t embraced in the United States, using U.S. Rep. Tlaib’s censure as an example, she said people in the United States still live in a place that allows free speech.

“There’s a lot more that we can do here,” she said. “I think we should take this opportunity and do something about it.”

Zarin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.