Student Protests and Death Threats: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Gets Personal at FAU

The dormitory hallways at Florida Atlantic University were uncomfortably quiet. By 3 p.m. Friday, many residents had left to begin their weekends. The air conditioner thrummed loudly in their absence. A stale odor, mixed with the chemical sting of cleaning products, struck 21-year-old Gabi Aleksinko as she and her friends made their way from door to door.

Aleksinko looks the part of a hippie activist, with long brown hair flowing past her shoulders and oversized earrings in the shape of peace signs. But there's a steeliness there too. Though she's lived in South Florida since she was 11, her parents are Argentine, her great-grandfather a Ukrainian refugee. Righteousness runs in her blood.

On the afternoon of March 30, Aleksinko, a nonpracticing Catholic, was accompanied by three other members of the campus club called Students for Justice in Palestine — including her boyfriend, Matthew Schneider, who is Jewish and vice president of the club. A resident adviser escorted them through three dormitories as the students used tape and printer paper to carry out their mission. They chatted, laughed, and told jokes, eager to break the silence of the halls.

Stamped diagonally in large, gray, capital lettering across their fliers was the word Eviction. A fake Palm Beach County Court case number and warrant number appeared in the upper right corner. On the lower left was the official seal of Palm Beach County, and in the lower right corner was a stamp of approval from FAU's Housing Department. "We regret to inform you that your home is scheduled for demolition shortly," the flier began. "You have three days to vacate the premises... or you will be subject to arrest."

A couple of students emerged from their rooms and panicked. "Crap, we got evicted," Aleksinko heard them whisper.

"Is this for real?" someone else asked.

"Nah, keep reading," the protesters responded.

At the bottom of the page, in large, bold letters, the flier stated: "Not a real eviction notice. Not affiliated with county." Then, in smaller type: "This notice is meant to spread awareness for the plight of the Palestinian people. Remember, American tax dollars pay for the Israeli occupation."

By sunset, Aleksinko's feet ached from walking up and down so many flights of stairs. Her team was exhausted. They were disappointed that only six or seven people stopped and asked them about the fliers. They had no idea what was coming.

With her FAU T-shirt and long, curly dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Noor Fawzy does not look the part of the frightening activist. She has a 4.0 GPA, is majoring in political science, serves as secretary of the College Democrats, and dreams of being an ambassador.

In early May, Fawzy gathered with other members of Students for Justice in Palestine's board on the couches of the FAU student union in Boca. Downstairs, her classmates played Ping-Pong. Upstairs, the hallway was mostly quiet, except for the stream of visitors — everyone from custodians to students — who walked by to say hello. "SJP! My people!" one man shouted, raising a fist in support.

Fawzy, 21, is the Muslim daughter of Palestinian refugees. Her mother was raised in Venezuela, her father in Kuwait. Her grandfather fled Palestine in the years leading up to the establishment of Israel, when violence between Zionists and Palestinians was frequent. Fawzy attended high school in Coral Springs. Her family is among roughly 101,000 Arab-Americans in Florida, a state with the fourth-largest Arab-American population in the country, according to the Arab American Institute.

Fawzy still has relatives living in the area she calls Palestine — a swath of land between Egypt and Jordan where Jews and Muslims trace their ancestral roots back thousands of years. In the late 1880s, a movement called Zionism beckoned Jews to return to their Holy Land in droves, to establish a safe haven from deadly persecution they faced in Russia and other parts of the world. At the time, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. Great Britain took control of the area during World War I.

In 1947, after 6 million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the United Nations proposed partitioning Palestine into two independent countries — one for Jews and one for Palestinians. The Palestinians declined. Instead, Arab forces attacked Israel and lost. The 1948 war ended with the establishment of Israel — the world's only modern Jewish nation — and hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian refugees. Israelis celebrated their Independence Day. Arabs called it "the Catastrophe."

For the past 64 years, Palestinians and Jews have lived an uneasy coexistence marked by frequent violence. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel captured the territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip from neighboring Arab nations. Under a United Nations accord reached after the war, captured lands were to be returned to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. However, neither the land swap nor peace has ever come.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab