Palestinian emergency services and local citizens search for victims in buildings destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on Oct. 17, 2023, in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Israel has sealed off Gaza, leaving the entire population without fuel, water or aid, and launched sustained retaliatory air strikes in response to an Oct. 7 surprise attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas that killed over 1,300 people and wounded around 2,800. Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah | Getty Images
The anger, despair, sorrow and division that the escalation of the war between Israel and Hamas has caused is deeply personal to Democratic lawmakers in Arizona who lament the loss of innocent lives but disagree on how to move forward.
Rep. Athena Salman, of Tempe, whose father came to the U.S from Palestine, led the effort among legislative Democrats to send a Nov. 7 letter to President Joe Biden, asking for a cease-fire.
“It’s very hard to bear witness,” Salman said through tears during a Nov. 8 press conference. “It’s hard to bear witness because I’m a descendant of a people that, for 75 years, has carried the degradation and humiliation of being an occupied people.”
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Salman was referring to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Salman does not have family in Gaza, the area of Palestine that is currently under siege, but still has relatives living in the West Bank, which is occupied by the Israeli military.
“Violence does not make anyone safer,” she told the Arizona Mirror on Nov. 9.
On the other side are Salman’s fellow Democrats, including state Reps. Alma and Consuelo Hernandez, who are Jewish. The two sisters, who both represent Tucson districts, spoke out against the call for a cease-fire, calling it unrealistic.
“It hands a win to Hamas,” the two representatives wrote in a statement. “If Israel stops fighting, there will be no Israel.”
Just 17 of the 43 Democratic legislators in Arizona signed the letter asking President Joe Biden to call for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas “to stop the dire humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Gaza.”
Israel has agreed to daily four-hour breaks in its assault on Gaza to give civilians time to escape, according to the White House, but the pauses will only apply to limited areas of Northern Gaza.
The Hernandez sisters said in their response statement that they had not been asked to sign the cease-fire letter. Salman told the Mirror that she tried to get a hold of as many Democrats as possible about the letter, but conceded that contacting the pair was not a priority since she knew they wouldn’t sign it.
In the letter, the group of Democrats condemned Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, including civilians at a music festival, in which militants killed 1,400 people and injured 5,000 more. They also kidnapped hundreds of others, taking them back to Gaza, where the fate of many remains uncertain. The legislators described it as a “horrific attack” and called for the release of the approximately 240 hostages that Hamas took that day.
“To this day, I feel deeply for the families that lost people that day, and I feel deeply for the families whose loved ones have been taken hostage,” Salman said during the press conference. “I am with you, as a mother, as a state representative, calling for the return of the hostages. It is just absolutely tragic.”
Consuelo Hernandez said she gives the legislators who wrote the ceasefire letter credit for condemning the Oct. 7 attack, but told the Mirror that she doesn’t believe everyone who signed it has a deep understanding of the conflict and its history.
“Unfortunately, there is no way around (Palestinian) civilian lives being lost,” she said.
Alma and Consuelo Hernandez both told the Mirror that they’ve been studying the conflict since they were teenagers. Alma Hernandez, who describes herself as a Zionist, said she has been to Israel several times and has many friends there.
“I don’t understand how anyone who signed onto the letter can think that Hamas, a terrorist organization, would agree to a cease-fire,” Consuelo Hernandez said, referencing reports of Hamas burning a baby alive in an oven during the Oct. 7 attack. “They’re showing us who they are. People are learning in real time.”
(It has not been independently verified whether a baby was burned alive by Hamas militants.)
Paul Rockower, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, told the Mirror in a statement that his organization grieves for the loss of innocent lives and would support calls for a cease-fire only if all parties in the conflict agree on timing, terms and verification conditions.
“Otherwise, there’s no such thing as a cease-fire; it’s unilateral disengagement that leaves exposed the side that stops firing,” Rockower said. “Moreover, this issue is far too important to turn into a partisan dispute between Arizona lawmakers. The best way to move forward, and to resolve this terrible crisis, is for us to talk to each other — not by making unilateral demands for the purpose of scoring points against our fellow Arizonans.”
Consuelo Hernandez said she grieves for the thousands of innocent Palestinian lives lost in the month since Israel began bombing Gaza, but blames Hamas for orchestrating an attack that it knew would elicit such a reaction from Israel and then hiding behind those innocent civilians.
“We’re dealing with pure evil here,” she said.
Alma Hernandez, who answered the Mirror’s questions via text message because she was out of the country for a conference on antisemitism, said she does not believe the Oct. 7 massacre justifies the killing of Palestinian civilians.
“I mourn the death of innocent Palestinian civilians, but Israel doesn’t target innocent civilians,” she said. “This is a war between Israel and the terrorist organization Hamas. Israel has the right and responsibility to protect its families…
“Palestinian civilians in Gaza are suffering because Hamas continues to use them as human shields. Hamas is a threat to Israel and our democratic values.”
A member of Hamas’s leadership, Khalil al-Hayya, told The New York Times that the Oct. 7 attack was necessary to “change the entire equation and not just have a clash.”
“We succeeded in putting the Palestinian issue back on the table, and now no one in the region is experiencing calm,” he said.
A Hamas media adviser, Taher El-Nounou, told the Times that he hopes “that the state of war with Israel will become permanent on all the borders, and that the Arab world will stand with us.”
Salman said she believes that Israel has gone far beyond self defense in its reaction, carrying out bombings that have killed an estimated 10,000 Palestinians, around 4,100 of them children, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. In addition to more than 25,000 Palestinians injured, the United Nations estimates that around 1,200 children who have been reported missing in Gaza may be buried under rubble.
Salman, who gave birth to her second child this summer, said she deeply empathized with the tens of thousands of pregnant women in Gaza who have only brackish water to drink and are undergoing C-sections without anesthetics because none are available due to Israel’s blockade stopping supplies from flowing into Gaza. Israel has also cut off the power supply to Gaza.
“We’ve hit a low point in our humanity when the children of Gaza are having to hold press conferences in broken English — in our language, in our tongue — pleading not to be bombed,” Salman said during the press conference. “When I look at the children’s faces, when I look at the Israeli children’s faces, I think, ‘Oh, my God, how can this be a child’s lived reality?’”
On Nov. 8, Alma Hernandez shared graphic photos of the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack, in what she described as an effort to ensure the public knows what happened that day.
“We can’t turn a blind eye to these pictures, and the reality of what happened,” she told the Mirror. “Entire families were butchered together and, in some cases, burned alive in their homes. People were executed in cold blood, women were raped and then shot or had body parts butchered off while alive, and innumerable victims were tortured in acts of monstrous brutality, people of all ages — from babies to the elderly. They did not care. The world must see these images. We are talking about terrorists, full stop.”
In the cease-fire letter, the legislators accused Israel of committing war crimes by violating the Geneva Conventions as well as the Additional Protocol II. The conventions and additional protocols are international laws that provide standards for the treatment of victims of war, including civilians.
“There are no justifications or exceptions for such crimes,” the legislators wrote. “It is critical for all sides to immediately move to ensure that human suffering and ongoing rights violations are stopped.”
Salman hopes that the urging of the Arizona legislators, along with legislators from other states and other organizations, including Jewish Voices for Peace, will push Biden to take action in calling for a ceasefire.
“What I want for the people of both Palestine and Israel is to have self determination,” Salman said. “I cannot dictate what that looks like, I’m not living there. Ultimately I hope and dream for my family and the people in that region that the people have true freedom and Palestinians have liberation.”
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