Outside of Al-Mokhtar Cafe in Anaheim’s Little Arabia residents gathered Wednesday evening to call for Palestine’s freedom and an end to Israeli airstrikes that have devastated the Gaza Strip thousands of miles away.

They also held a vigil for the hundreds of Palestinians killed in the last two weeks. Hung on a signpost outside were the names of the children killed in the airstrikes. 

“We’re Palestinian first and foremost. We love our country. We will do anything for it and we need to make people see what’s going on in Palestine,” said Omar Alahmed, whose father owns the cafe.

“We’re not going to stand and sit with our hands in our pockets not doing anything and just crying over videos. We want everything to change and it is going to change inshallah,” he said.

A man stands on top of the roof of Al-Mokhtar Cafe after putting up a Palestinian flag. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

One by one organizers spoke to a crowd of supporters who came out to the vigil. In between speakers, organizers led the crowd in chants including “Free Free Palestine” and “End End the Occupation.” 

Protests for Palestine have popped up in Los Angeles and major cities across the country in recent weeks. They have also taken place in Canada and countries in Europe, Africa and Asia as well as Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.

These demonstrations have now made their way to Orange County where Arab American university students have historically been vocal about the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Wednesday’s vigil was part of a week of action to get people to come out and support Palestine, as well get residents to pressure Congress to sanction and stop U.S. military funding of Israel.

Attendees held pictures of the children who were killed and flowers before placing the blooms in the middle of the circle around the entrance of the cafe. 

“We’re holding these images for a very, very specific reason. We want you to remember every single name, every single face that you’re holding so that when we do go back home, we continue to work for liberation,” said Johanna, one of the organizers of the vigil.

Some organizers did not wish to use their full name for fear of being targeted.

A Palestinian flag was drawn in chalk in the circle with a message that read “Free Palestine” and people placed electronic candles on the outline of the flag.

The vigil was organized by the U.S. Palestinian Community Network and the Arab American Civic Council. The Palestinian Youth Movement and the Palestinian American Women’s Association also participated.

The organizers called for the end of the U.S. government’s political, financial and military sponsorship of Israel. 

The Arab American Civic Council is among several groups calling on people to send letters to their elected leaders to stop the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah as well as to end U.S. military funding to Israel.

Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the council, told the Voice of OC on Tuesday that Alan Lowenthal was the only member of Congress representing Orange County to sign on to the letters.

Nura, a member of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network, called out Congressman Lou Correa by name.

“We have a message tonight for Congressman Lou Correa, that his stances on Palestinian life are not acceptable,” she said. “Correa, we are calling for your accountability tonight. We are here to announce our demands to you Lou Correa that you hold Israel accountable for human rights violations and war crimes.”

Correa, like President Joseph Biden and presidents before him, has supported Israel’s right to defend itself.

“Israel is our friend and ally and has a right to defend itself. Hamas exploited a volatile situation to initiate hostilities against Israel, but now it is time for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza by all sides,” Correa said in a tweet on Tuesday.

But for many Palestinians, Arabs and some in the international community, Israel’s right to self-defense is not a justified reason for the airstrikes, especially when the death toll and the balance of power is slanted one way. 

“We have had enough of the soft positions of justifications for bombing innocent people and that our tax money is going to fund all of this,” Nura said.

Over 220 of Palestinians in Gaza, including over 60 children, have been killed amid a recent barrage of Israeli airstrikes which has forced ten of thousands into shelter. It has also left Gazans facing a shortage of clean water and medicine.

In Israel, 12 people have been killed including two children as of Wednesday, according to the Washington Post.

Israeli forces have said their bombing campaign is aimed at Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza and is deemed by Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union as a terrorist group. 

Hamas has fired thousands of rockets at Israel, which the Israeli government has for the most part been able to defend against with the country’s Iron Dome air defense system.

Hamas started to fire the rockets after Israeli police raided and attacked worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque, following protests over a planned expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

[ Read: Global Palestinian Protests Arrive in Orange County; Community Groups Call on Elected Officials to Take Action ]

Recently, the Biden’s administration approved a potential $735 million sale of precision guided weapons to Israel, the Washington Post reported.

On Wednesday, a handful of Democratic Congress members, including Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), the sole Palestinian American in the House of Representatives, sponsored a resolution to block that sale.

“We want to ask the rest of the Congress members to cosponsor that resolution,” Al-Dabbagh said. “You can make that call right now and leave a message. This is the least we can do.”

Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, speaks to the crowd at the vigil in Little Arabia on May 19, 2021. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. made its largest single pledge in military assistance to Israel, agreeing to give $38 billion over a decade ($3.8 billion annually), according to the White House.

Some Democratic members of Congress recently spoke out against U.S. military support for Israel, condemned the airstrikes and called for the protection of Palestinian rights. They also introduced and sponsored a resolution to promote and protect those rights.

“There are many Congress members who want to defund annexation, who want to defund oppression and who want to defund ethnic cleansing,” Al-Dabbagh said. “They want to hear from you and it’s our duty to collectively tell them and to voice our opinion.”

Meanwhile, a large group wearing Palestinian keffiyehs — a scarf —  and bearing signs stood on the sidewalk off of Brookhurst Street chanting “Free Palestine” at passing cars. In return, the drivers honked their horns in support as passengers waved flags.

Later in the night, cars stopped in the middle of the street, including a school bus with the words Save Palestine written on the side. Some people stood in the street around the cars continuing to protest with some even getting on top of the bus. Organizers said that group was not part of the vigil.

Anaheim police dispatch told the Voice of OC Wednesday night that several units responded to calls of “vehicles taking over the street”.

Police Sgt. Shane Carringer, a spokesperson for the department, said a police helicopter told the crowd to get on the side walk, the crowd complied and no arrests were made.

He said they estimated that 80-100 people were at the protest and that the crowd on Brookhurst street later grew to 200.

Johanna also told Voice of OC there were around 100 attendees at the vigil.

More protests are planned.

On Saturday, organizers will lead a caravan of cars from Little Arabia to the Federal building in Santa Ana in protest.

Other groups are organizing protests this week too.

On Friday, a protest organized by Yalla Indivisible will be held at 4 p.m. outside West Orange Avenue & South Brookhurst Street in Anaheim.

The protests are also making their way down to south county. One will be held on Sunday at 1768 Newport Blvd., where the 55 freeway ends in Costa Mesa.

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

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