50 pro-Palestinian activists in Temple Terrace call for an end to Gaza blockade

One of the rally organizers of the rally was Chris Ernesto with St. Pete for Peace, formed a decade ago after the U.S. invaded Iraq. He says that this was the fourth time his group has protested violence in the Middle East.

Citing the war in Lebanon in 2006, the battle in Gaza in late 2008 and the Israel attack on a flotilla bringing food and medicine to Gaza in 2010, Ernesto disputed the notion by both the U.S. and Israeli governments that Israel is justified in defending themselves from rocket attacks. "The reality is they (the Israelis) are the aggressor."

Community organizer Ahmed Bedier said though he hopes the cease-fire will hold, the complaints from Palestinians and their supporters won't end until the Gaza blockade does.

"Right now in Gaza, those people are trapped. They can’t leave that area," he said. "It’s been described as a open-air prison. That’s what’s unacceptable. We need to break that siege. We need to lift the blockade and the people should be able to live freely, just like everybody else."

A young Tampa man who only wanted to be identified as Jack agreed with Bedier, saying that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unlike any around the world. "95 percent of the water is too contaminated to drink. That's disgusting. We can't boast about freedom in American when our government funds the occupation of Palestine."

And Jack said the U.S. support for Israel in this situation compelled him to not support President Obama in this month's presidential election. "How can you support murder?" he asked.

The Israeli government said the raison d'etre for their military incursion (called Oeration Pillar of Defense) was to punish Hamas for their decision to increase the tempo of rocket attacks at Israeli civilian targets in recent months. Israeli military analysts also say the battle was relevant to stabilize the peace with Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power.

In terms of moving forward on a peace plan that would ultimately result in a two-state solution, that goal seems more elusive than ever. Part of the problem is that the Palestinians don't speak with one voice now - Hamas represents them in Gaza, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is their leader the West Bank.

Israel and Hamas have no diplomatic relations. Israel says that will only change when Hamas officially recognizes their right to exist.

But Abbas' overall popularity with Palestinians appears to be ebbing, while Hamas' leaders are boasting of a "victory" in this most recent battle. Ahmed Bedier says that Abbas is becoming irrelevant, and he blames the Israeli government for sidelining him.

"They keep undermining every type of agreement, and the average Palestinian, seeing that things aren't moving forward through peace..the message they see when Israel launches attacks is what Israel understands is violence," he said.

Hassan Shibley with the Tampa office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), decried what he said was Israel's disproportionate military response to Hamas rocket attacks (most press accounts reported that that more than 150 Palestinians died in the week-long fight, with Israel lost six people in the attacks).

But he added that he was happy that the attacks had ended on both sides. "It’s a cycle of violence, and both sides need to stopand put human life and human blood above political interests."

While leading Florida politicians on both sides of the aisle were lending their support for Israel in rallies this Thanksgiving weekend, about 50 pro-Palestinian activists held forth Saturday afternoon at the corner of Fowler and 56th Street in Temple Terrace.

Although official hostilities between Israel and Gaza's ruling Hamas party ended earlier in the week when a cease-fire was negotiated, tensions remain tense in the Middle East after the worst outbreak of violence there in nearly four years ago.

On Friday in Sarasota, hundreds came out in support of Israel.
While no public officials were in attendance, Governor Rick Scott, Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and Congressman Vern Buchanan all wrote letters of support for Israel, which were read aloud to the crowd. Rubio and South Florida Democratic Congresswoman and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz were also scheduled to speak at a pro-Israeli government rally on Sunday in North Miami Beach.

But in Temple Terrace, activists were split between calling for peace in the region and declaring it unacceptable that the Israeli government (with U.S. consent) continues to allow an economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, which began in 2007 and has only been slightly loosened since then.

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