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Are we listening to the message from local Palestinians? 

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early December, I ventured into SLO PAL FEST, A Symposium on Palestine at Trinity Hall in the tiny community of Edna. It was my first visit inside that historic building, the property of the Portuguese Holy Spirit Society, founded in 1911. Hundreds were already gathered, most appearing to be Muslims: Many of the men were bearded; many women proudly wore their hijab. All of them wore a broad smile of welcome as they busied themselves preparing for the event.

And there, in a building constructed by Portuguese Catholics, thronged by so many Muslims, the first person to shake my hand was Gordon Mullin—my favorite conservative sparring partner and a recent convert to Judaism.

I was struck by the stunning diversity of the crowd as we squeezed into the hall (capacity 300). Most attendees were young adults; many were non-white. I chatted with friends old and new, including physicians and neighbors Rushdi and Nisha Cader (Rushdi contributed to my November column).

SLO City Council members were present. Many of the organizers circulated a petition to SLO County elected officials calling for a ceasefire by Israel and Hamas, an exchange of hostages/prisoners, and negotiations to create a lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike. I signed a digital version of the petition weeks earlier.

Israeli forces have carried out a massive aerial and ground offensive in Gaza in the weeks since the horrific Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed about 1,100 Israelis and 71 others (including about a dozen Americans). Hamas continues to launch missiles into Israel, with an impact that is mostly psychological. Each day, new atrocities have piled on, with only a brief "pause" during the Thanksgiving weekend to exchange a handful of hostages from Hamas' tunnels for 150 Palestinian "detainees" from Israeli prisons.

To date, more than 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza have died, the vast majority of them civilians, mostly women and children. The Israeli retaliation has displaced more than 85 percent of the survivors from their homes. They now suffer in conditions described as catastrophic. Israel has destroyed 40 percent of the buildings in Gaza, the most densely populated city on the planet. Most of Gaza's health facilities have been knocked out. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that "there are actually no functional hospitals left in the north." One-third of Gaza's 2-plus million people are facing starvation.

The stories told in the SLO PAL symposium reflected this pain and brought it home. Yet this perspective is rarely given voice anywhere in the U.S. today—even less frequently here, with our minuscule community of Palestinians. Those who spoke that afternoon in Trinity Hall offered moving accounts of the suffering in Gaza and occupied Palestine.

Farah Al-Nakib from the Cal Poly History Department introduced five panelists, including three with advanced degrees: Two were professors, one a Cal Poly undergraduate. They were joined by an American emergency physician with experience as a WHO medic in Gaza and a young woman who remained anonymous out of concern for retaliation against her family in Palestine. All spoke passionately, occasionally with tears, about the decades of neglect suffered by those who descend from the ancient and indigenous culture of Palestine.

Ashraf Tubeileh is on the Cal Poly faculty; his family emigrated from occupied Palestine after their home in Gaza was destroyed. He recently lost a cousin, the mother of an infant child who had sought refuge in the southern region of Gaza only to be hit by an air strike. He told of the destruction of all four of the universities in Gaza, the mining of its medical college. But as he concluded, he stated firmly, "We will rebuild."

Iyad Jamaly, a 22-year-old Cal Poly student, spoke of the diaspora of "stateless" Palestinians, reflected in his own family's search for a refuge from Gaza. He ultimately found his way to the U.S. via Kuwait but continues to cultivate his roots in that troubled region.

Another well-informed participant, also on the Cal Poly faculty, recited the tragically long list of post-WWII wars between Israel and Palestinians beginning with the founding of Israel in 1948, in which 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes.

Heidi Hutchison, the emergency physician, spoke of the pride that Palestinians held in their health facilities in Gaza, now on the brink of collapse. In 2006, Israel withdrew its occupation forces but imposed a blockade that limited essential supplies and severely restricted the health care system.

The young woman who remained anonymous offered one of the most moving accounts of how her once-affluent Palestinian family has been systematically deprived of resources and forced to rely on ration cards and handouts. She is determined, however, to finish her education and earn an advanced degree.

The first part of the event concluded with a lavish Mediterranean feast. Outside the hall, I noticed several men and women kneeling and praying toward Mecca. I joined them in my own way, in a silent prayer conveyed toward the same God of Abraham. I asked for the same peace, that peace which surpasses all understanding, eternally. Δ

John Ashbaugh is neither Jewish nor Palestinian, but he continues to ask the Rodney King question: "Why can't we all just get along?" Respond with a letter to the editor by emailing it to [email protected].

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