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Community members organize ‘Hands Off Rafah’ rally, die-in at R.I. Holocaust Memorial

Demonstration follows Israeli hostage rescue operation that killed at least 67 Palestinians

The gathering follows the Israeli military’s Feb. 12 operation in Rafah, where armed forces staged a raid to rescue two hostages, leaving 67 Palestinians dead.
The gathering follows the Israeli military’s Feb. 12 operation in Rafah, where armed forces staged a raid to rescue two hostages, leaving 67 Palestinians dead.

At 1 p.m. on Feb. 17, roughly 100 community members gathered at Memorial Park on South Main Street for a “Hands Off Rafah” rally and die-in. 

The protest, organized by the Rhode Island branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, follows the Israeli military’s Feb. 12 operation in Rafah, where armed forces staged a raid to rescue two hostages. The airstrikes accompanying the raid killed at least 67 Palestinians, according to the Associated Press.

The city of Rafah straddles Gaza’s southern border with Egypt and was designated a “safe zone” from the ongoing Israel-Palestine war. Since October, which marked the official onset of the war, Rafah — an area of 25 square miles — has seen an influx of 1.4 million sheltering Palestinians. The region faces a severe humanitarian crisis as closed borders inhibit aid deliveries and civilians seek shelter in makeshift tents.

Satya Mohapatra, an organizer with PSL R.I., compared the region to “150% of the population of Rhode Island squeezed into a place which is the size of Providence,” in an interview with The Herald. “That's the humanitarian crisis we're talking about.”


Some speakers denounced Israel’s expressed intent to operate offensives in Rafah, calling Israeli military operations “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” 

“An assault on Rafah … will be nothing less than genocide,” said Sam Weisman, an organizer with PSL R.I., in his speech to the protesting crowd. “‘Complete victory’ for Israel translates to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.”

On Feb. 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement ordering military officials to draft plans to evacuate Rafah in anticipation of a ground offensive, according to the New York Times. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office referred to Rafah as “Hamas’s last bastion” in a post on X, and Netanyahu expressed the need to enter the region in order to weaken Hamas’s control.

In a conversation with Netanyahu on Feb. 11, President Biden “reaffirmed his view that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there,” according to a White House press release. Netanyahu has “vowed to forge ahead.”

While the Biden administration has expressed hesitation over Israeli military offensives in Rafah, Weisman claimed that “the U.S. and Israel have a symbiotic relationship where the U.S. provides Israel with the arms funding and diplomatic support necessary to maintain its colonial occupation of Palestine.”

On Feb. 13, the U.S. Senate voted to pass a $95.3 billion foreign aid package allocating $14.1 billion for Israeli defense and security weaponry. The package also includes defense funds for Ukraine and Taiwan, along with $9.15 billion for humanitarian aid in Gaza, the West Bank and Ukraine.

Mohapatra criticized Rhode Island Senators Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., for voting in favor of the proposal. 


“There is blood on American politicians’ hands,” he said. “They're on board with greenlighting the genocide.”

“Senator Reed appreciates the activism of those who speak out on key issues like this,” Chip Unruh, Senator Reed’s communications director, wrote in an email to The Herald. “Senator Reed has called for the secure release of hostages in tandem with a restored mutual ceasefire in Gaza. He voted for the $9.2 billion in humanitarian assistance in the bill that is critical to help innocent civilians and is long overdue.”


A representative for Senator Whitehouse’s office told The Herald that the senator recently attended the Munich Security Conference and discussed “steps toward a true and lasting peace in the Middle East” but did not comment on claims made at the rally. 

The rally and die-in were endorsed and advertised by the advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace Rhode Island. Prior to the die-in, some Jewish speakers shared their experiences of navigating their religious identity in the midst of the Israel-Palestine war. 

In his speech to the crowd, rally speaker Julian Drix claimed that “Zionism has corrupted our Jewish identity and faith.”

It has “made us so intertwined with a violently colonial settler state, so that we can’t critique Israel without being called antisemitic or self-hating Jews,” he added. “Zionism uses our ancestors’ experience of oppression to justify stealing Palestinian land and being oppressors.”

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In the speech, Drix called on the historical legacy of the Holocaust in framing the current treatment of Palestinians in Gaza. “Gaza is often called an open-air prison,” he said. “But let’s be real — Israel is creating concentration camps. Israel is starving and depriving 2.3 million people of the basic essentials for life.”

Citing the vow “never again” used by Germany to remember and reflect on the Holocaust, Drix added that “‘never again’ doesn't just mean ‘never again’ for us, but ‘never again’ by anyone, and especially ‘never again’ by us.”


Demonstrators laid down on tarps that were sprawled out around the Holocaust Memorial. Organizers encouraged participants to “honor the victims of the Holocaust” and to “honor the victims of the ongoing Nakba.” The silent die-in lasted five minutes. 

“The Holocaust is not an abstract idea,” said Drix in a separate interview with The Herald. “It is very visceral — a story that I was raised with and understand in a very deeply personal way. So there’s no choice but solidarity, and I cannot comprehend people who twist it around the other way.”

“I will never forget what happened to the people during the Holocaust,” said rally speaker Sterk Zaza in her earlier statement to the crowd. “And I will never forget what is happening to the Palestinians right now.” 

The rally closed with demonstrators gathering red, green and black balloons — representing the colors of the Palestinian flag — and congregating on the College Street Bridge. Organizers led the crowd, chanting “Free, Free Palestine” as demonstrators released balloons into the air.

Editor's Note: This article was updated Feb. 21 with additional reporting.

Tom Li

Tom Li is a Metro Editor covering the Health & Environment and Development & Infrastructure beats. He is from Pleasanton, California, and is concentrating in Economics and International & Public Affairs. He is an avid RIPTA passenger and enjoys taking (and criticizing) personality tests in his free time.

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