What's at stake:
The Palestinian American community in Fresno has been agonizing over family back home, and they question whether Fresno's elected leaders understand what they're going through.
The trauma and agony of ongoing violence in Palestine touches the lives of many Fresno residents who struggle to stay in touch with family and friends as the death count grows each day.
In the six weeks since Hamas militants killed approximately 1,200 Israeli people in an Oct. 7 attack, the Israeli government has killed more than 11,000 Palestinian people through airstrikes, shelling and a ground incursion into the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli government’s bombardment has also killed more than 100 United Nations aid workers and more than 35 Palestinian journalists. In October, United Nations experts warned that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are at risk of being ethnically cleansed. In November, they escalated the risk to genocide.
Fresnoland spoke to a dozen Fresno residents with family in Gaza or the West Bank. They criticized local elected leaders, many of whom have publicly expressed concern or support for innocent Israelis but have remained silent about the loss of thousands of innocent Palestinians. The silence is chilling for Palestinian American community members who have lost family members and worry about the ones still breathing.
“I’ve basically just been asking my dad simple questions like, ‘Are they alive?’” said one 20-year-old Palestinian Fresno resident, whose father’s cousins live in the Gaza Strip. Born and raised in Fresno, she requested anonymity because she is concerned about her personal safety.
It’s been challenging to communicate with her father’s cousins, especially with Israel cutting off electricity, phone lines and internet services in the Gaza Strip several times since October. She added that Israeli airstrikes in Gaza displaced her father’s cousins, and they’ve since bounced between hospitals, UN buildings and refugee camps.
She said she hopes they do not meet the same fate as thousands of Palestinians who have been killed in buildings designated by the Geneva Conventions as protected sites under international laws of war.
Another Palestinian Fresno resident with family in Gaza also requested anonymity, specifically to avoid harassment and doxxing online. Born and raised in Fresno, the current Fresno State student said getting in touch with her aunt has also been challenging.
“It is really scary because we don’t know if that radio silence means she’s no longer here or if it’s just she doesn’t have connection,” the Fresno State student said. “She’s older so it’s very concerning.”
Palestinian Fresno residents frustrated with local leaders
Since Oct. 14, Fresno residents have rallied in support of Palestine in more than a dozen public demonstrations at busy Fresno intersections. At some of the protests, crowds have surpassed 200 people, and speakers called out Mayor Jerry Dyer, saying that he has not adequately engaged with the Palestinian American community in Fresno.
“It’s ‘One Fresno’ except us,” said Palestinian Fresno resident Layla Darwish, in reference to Dyer’s campaign slogan in his 2020 bid for mayor. Darwish is part of a group of organizers behind pro-Palestine demonstrations in Fresno who are demanding a public apology from Dyer, and that he raise the Palestinian flag — as he did with the Israeli flag on Oct. 12 — at Eaton Plaza in downtown Fresno.
Dyer had steered clear of mentioning Palestine in his statements since early October. However, on Thursday, the mayor publicly addressed the city’s Palestinian American community at the Fresno City Council meeting.
“We want you to know that you have value in Fresno, you have a place in Fresno, you have a place in my office,” Dyer said inside council chambers. “I invite you to come in and have a conversation with me.”
Dyer also said he doesn’t condone the killing of innocent people on either side, but stopped short of publicly apologizing to Fresno Palestinians.
Dyer’s comments on Thursday did little to appease frustrated residents at the meeting who’ve criticized the mayor for lashing out at pro-Palestine protesters during the contentious Oct. 12 flag-raising ceremony at Eaton Plaza.
“What Jerry Dyer came up and did is nothing but a strategy,” said Yusuf Robinson, one of 24 people who spoke in solidarity with Palestinian people on Thursday. “It’s not genuine. I don’t believe that. If it was genuine, there would be an apology.”
Later in the afternoon, Dyer met with about 10 of the Palestinian community members who spoke at the council meeting, including Darwish, the Palestinian organizer.
It was an encouraging conversation, Darwish said, because Dyer was listening to all the concerns her community members were sharing with him. But she told Fresnoland on Thursday evening that private meetings with some Palestinian community members are not a stand in for adequately engaging with her community.
Darwish said Dyer needs to heed her community’s calls to not only raise the Palestinian flag, but publicly apologize to the Palestinian American community.
“If he lets us down, he’s out,” Darwish said. “He’s not going to be our next mayor. Plain and simple. On to the next guy that can meet our demands.”
Palestinian Fresno residents have also called on the Fresno City Council to pass a ceasefire resolution — a proposal that hasn’t caught traction outside a handful of American cities, including two in California: Richmond and Cudahy. The topic was first raised at City Hall in Fresno during public comment at a Nov. 2 city council meeting, where 19 people spoke to the need for local elected leaders to demonstrate that they care about Palestinian lives.
No Fresno city councilmembers have made any indication they intend on bringing forward a resolution. City Council President Tyler Maxwell and Vice President Annalisa Perea have not responded to Fresnoland’s interview requests.
Fresno residents have also criticized federal elected officials representing Fresno, including U.S. Reps. Jim Costa, Kevin McCarthy, Tom McClintock and John Duarte.
Costa, a Democrat, broke with his party earlier this month, voting in favor of censuring fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib — the only Palestinian American in Congress — over her recent criticism of Israel.
Costa was one of only 22 Democrats, and the only one from California, to support censuring Tlaib. He voted the same way as McCarthy on the matter, too. But McClintock and Duarte were two of only four Republicans who did not support censuring Tlaib.
Context key to understanding Israel and Palestine
Every Palestinian Fresno resident who spoke with Fresnoland said it is impossible to understand the violence in Israel and Palestine by only starting with what happened on Oct. 7. It dates back many decades to 1947, the beginning of Al-Nakba — Arabic for “the catastrophe” — when armed Zionist groups forcibly expelled 750,000 Palestinian people from their communities and homes.
Several historians, including Israeli academic Ilan Pappé, have termed the forceful expulsion of Palestinian people from their homeland as an instance of ethnic cleansing. In the 1990s, the United Nations commission on human rights violations in former Yugoslavia defined ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.”
Today, Palestine’s territories consist of two distinct areas divided by the country of Israel. The Gaza Strip’s more than 2 million residents, half of whom are children under 18, have been under an illegal 15-year air, sea and land blockade. Several human rights organizations have termed the Gaza Strip an open air prison.
The West Bank, which was divided into different zones meant to be Palestinian territory, has instead been eroded by the Israeli government and Israeli civilians through their violent displacement of entire Palestinian communities. Israeli settlers have pushed Palestinian people out of their homes in the West Bank at an accelerated pace since October — all at the condemnation of 30 Israeli human rights and civil society organizations.
“I feel like consistently, there seems to be this narrative that Israel is just trying to defend itself,” said Raneem Al-Ahmed, a Palestinian Fresno resident. “But in reality, there is no Hamas that exists in the West Bank and we’re still seeing this kind of high level of violence towards Palestinians.”
Since October, 172 Palestinians, including 46 children, have been killed in the West Bank, according to a Nov. 13 address by UN human rights independent expert Francesca Albanese. She added that Israeli settlers have also displaced 15 Palestinian herding communities and depopulated 11 Palestinian villages.
Al-Ahmed has 15 relatives on her father’s side of the family in the West Bank who have been laying low, trying to limit their trips outside to just work and groceries. The threat to Palestinians in the West Bank is real, and she is worried that not enough people are aware of what they’ve been facing, as international attention has focused mainly on the Gaza Strip.
“Honestly, it’s very concerning,” Al-Ahmed said. “I’m just constantly worried, constantly thinking about what’s going to happen next and I’m just in shock that no one is saying anything about this.”
Calling for an end to the Israeli government’s assault on Palestinian people is not complicated, Al-Ahmed said: “Condemning violence towards Palestinians does not mean that you condone violence towards Israelis.”
Across the nation, calls for a ceasefire have been coupled with a demand that the U.S. stop sending military aid to Israel.
“The bombs that are being dropped on Gaza, they are being sent with our money,” said Salam, a Palestinian Fresno resident who shared only her first name for personal safety concerns. “We must cease fire — stop dropping bombs, stop spending our money like that.”
Frustrations are further compounded for many Fresno Palestinians whose struggles — stretching across many generations — feel minimized and disregarded even as worldwide attention has grown in recent weeks. There’s no other way to feel when the eyes of the world will inevitably move on after the latest stretch of violence in Israel and Palestine, with no long term resolution in place for the region.
Salam said her grandfather was among the hundreds of thousands ethnically cleansed from historic Palestine. In 1948, her grandfather was 18 when he had to leave Al-Tira — a small coastal town near Haifa — where he grew up.
After its residents were expelled, the town became part of Israel and its name was changed to Tirat Karmel. Salam’s grandfather fled north to Syria, but only after being separated from his own family, and then reuniting with them later at a refugee camp. Since 1948, no one in Salam’s family has been able to return to her grandfather’s old village.
But that changed last December, shortly after Salam obtained U.S. citizenship, enabling her to visit Haifa with her mother — something her relatives in Syria are barred from to this day.
She never thought she’d be able to go back to her ancestral lands, and she said the trip to Palestine was “an unforgettable experience.” She took home a few souvenirs, including a shell from the beach in view of her grandfather’s old village.
Salam remembers stories from her grandfather about Al-Tira, which he described as a village on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. He had to travel several kilometers for school, and when it was time to come back home, he would try to hitch a car ride to avoid trekking up the steep hill.
“He always told it with a smile on his face,” Salam said of her grandfather’s stories. “Until he would reach a point where he’d remember when he had to leave. The story always came to that conclusion.”