A student-led caravan of cars drove around Irvine this past weekend, honking horns and shouting Free Palestine to bring attention to their protest of Israel’s planned annexation of a significant chunk of the already occupied West Bank.

While the debate over the future of Palestine is decades old and several thousand miles away, the issue still remains close to the heart of many Palestinian American students in Orange County.

A protester waves a Palestinian flag during the caravan protest on July 26, 2020 in Irvine. Credit: Omar Sanchez

Rashad Al-Dabbagh, the executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, told the Voice of OC that California has the largest Arab American population in the country.  There were close to 41,000 Arab Americans living in Orange County, according to estimates from a national movement working to ensure Arab Americans are counted accurately in the 2020 census.

Arab American students at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton have continuously spoken out about the Israeli occupation of Palestine – often meeting with pushback at their university and even with arrests. 

Now with the Coronavirus pandemic and the Israeli government’s looming plan to annex 30% of the West Bank their resistance has taken on a new form and a new sense of urgency.

“It’s hard to advocate and do things online especially because being in person is a huge aspect of being able to bring people together. The movement has definitely been harder to continue with the pandemic which is why we wanted to try and do a caravan,” Rana, one of the organizers said in a phone interview.

Students from UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Santiago Canyon College in Orange organized the protest. The organizers have asked the Voice of OC to omit their last names in fear of being targeted.

“We have to do a lot of reimagination of what protesting looks like, especially when we have to practice social distancing and with the fear of Coronavirus so there’s lots of things that we have to consider that we wouldn’t have had to had COVID not been around,” said Hanin another one of the organizers.

“There’s lots of learning on our end.”

The idea for the Caravan came about because campuses are empty because it’s the summer and the pandemic has kept classes online. Organizers decided that they’d assemble off campus and that the caravan would limit the spread of the virus.

“Because we can’t do anything on our campuses we’re taking it to the streets essentially,” Hanin said. 

Protesters wearing Keffiyehs as the caravan protest moves through Irvine on July 26, 2020. Credit: Omar Sanchez

Protesters assembled at the MarketPlace parking lot equipped with signs, waving Palestinian flags and wearing keffiyehs – a scarf that has become a symbol of resistance – before a route for the caravan was revealed and cars lined up single file out of the lot

Dozens of cars made their way out the MarketPlace driving down Irvine Boulevard and then circling back to the lot-  honking as protesters hung out the top and sides of their vehicles shouting Free Palestine and signs on their vehicles calling for no annexation.

The Israeli government was expected to announce their plan to annex almost a third of the West Bank on July 1 but delayed the plan due to the pandemic amidst protests in Palestine and international opposition from the United Nations, the European Union and other world leaders.

“When we heard about the annexation there were a bunch of nationwide and worldwide protests on July 1 it was called the day of rage in opposition to the annexation,” Hanin said.  “We felt like we still needed to continue the energy.”

In 2010, 11 Muslim UC Irvine students were arrested and charged for disrupting and protesting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States on campus. The university suspended the Muslim Student group who coardinated the disruption sparking a debate in Orange County on freedom of speech.

University groups like the Students for Justice in Palestine that operate on campuses in the United States advocate for the rights and freedom of Palestinians, an issue they feel has been ignored by the global community.

In 2017, UCI’s chapter was put on a two year probation by the University for disrupting an event featuring Israeli soldiers.

Hanin said the chapter at Cal State Fullerton has been growing – getting lots of new attendees to their events and meetings last year. 

The Fullerton group holds a display annually which they call the Apartheid wall highlighting the occupation of Palestine as well as to symbolize the 420-mile wall that separates the West Bank and Israel. 

Last year Scott Spitzer, a faculty member at Cal State Fullerton, spoke out against the display in a letter he wrote to the Daily Titan, the university’s student newspaper. He criticized the title of the wall writing that Israel is not an apartheid state.

The wall includes information on the injustices committed against Palestinians by the Israeli government including the demolition of homes, the blockade of food and supplies from the Gaza strip and the water crisis in the region.

The Palestinian flag draped on the trunk of a car during the caravan protest. Credit: Omar Sanchez

Yusif Hasan, a high school student in Irvine who participated in the protest, said that he has nothing but love for Israelis.

“If you disagree that we deserve freedom then I’m against you but I’m not against an ordinary Israeli Jewish person,” Hasan said.

The organizers said to expect more protests in August but added specific dates were yet to be decided.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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