On Oct. 18, organizers say 500 people, mostly Jewish activists, were arrested in Washington, DC, as they carried out a sit-in inside a Capitol office building to demand an immediate ceasefire in the besieged and blockaded Gaza Strip. 

“We are here, very simply, to say no to genocide, to say an end to mass murder, to say an end to keeping water, food, power, and medical care away from people,” Rabbi Linda Holtzman told The Real News prior to her arrest inside the Capitol’s Cannon House Office Building. 

Holtzman and a dozen other Jewish rabbis led the civil disobedience action as thousands rallied outside to demand an end to the US-backed Israeli assault on Gaza. Many held signs that read “Jews say: Ceasefire Now,” and “No to war, no to apartheid.” Gaza’s 2.2 million residents face a mounting death toll from a relentless  bombing campaign by Israeli forces, which have cut off access to food, water, and electricity in retaliation for the Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack that killed over 1,400 Israelis. 

As of Oct. 18, 3,478 Palestinians have been killed and 12,000 wounded by Israel’s assault, including reports of 471 killed on Oct. 17 in the bombing of a Gaza hospital. The United Nations has urged Israel to lift its humanitarian blockade cutting access to power, water, food, and medical supplies. Israel ordered one million Gaza residents to relocate to the south ahead of a possible ground invasion. 

“It is a genocide, and I say that with the full knowledge of all that means to our people, and we are here to end it now,” said Stephanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, which organized the action.

The protest took place as US President Joe Biden traveled to Israel to show support for its ongoing attack on Gaza, and one day after the bombing of al-Ahli Hospital, which, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, killing hundreds of women, children, and medical personnel. Palestinians accused Israel of the attack but Biden echoed Israel’s claim that the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad was responsible for the attack. Responsibility remains disputed. 

During his visit, Biden vowed to send Israel additional military aid and sought to broker a deal to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, but activists said the US must stop supporting and try to end Israel’s attacks.

“It’s crystal clear. We’re saying to Biden as he’s there in Israel: demand an immediate ceasefire,”  said Holtzman. “We are here to say the United States of America: You can’t keep funding a genocide.”

Starting at noon, gathered  at the National Mall, speakers led chants of “No more weapons, no more war, a ceasefire is what we are calling for,” and urged Congress to support a resolution introduced on Monday by Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) for an immediate ceasefire.  Both representatives addressed the crowd.

Tlaib, the sole Palestinian-American member of Congress, criticized her colleagues for rejecting her call for an immediate end to hostilities. “They’re saying, ‘Not yet. Maybe next week. Maybe in a couple of days.’ How many have to die?” Talib asked. 

Tlaib also criticized the White House, which has so far rejected calls for a ceasefire, and last week said those demands were “repugnant” and “disgraceful.”

“I want [President Biden] to know, as a Palestinian American [and of the] Muslim faith, I’m not going to forget this. And I think a lot of people are not going to forget this,” Tlaib said.

Bush said a ceasefire is the only way to stop the cycle of bloodshed in Israel and Palestine. “Violence, we know, will never bring peace. Violence only leads to more violence,” she said. “We must stand on the side of humanity. We must stand on the side of justice. We must stand on the side of equality. We must stand on the side of self-determination.”

Activists urged the Biden administration to hold Israel accountable for its actions. 

“President Biden has one job when he’s talking to Netanyahu, which is to say ceasefire now. We already funded Israeli apartheid at $4 billion a year—there they’re discussing $10 billion more in this horrifying march of war, violence and death.” said Fox.

“What we’re seeing is that as progressives see more clearly what is happening in Gaza, the demand for ceasefire is rapidly becoming more normalized, and it’s coming from the progressive left of the party.”

Beth Miller, Jewish Voice for Peace Political Director

Congress has pledged additional military support to Israel, which has already set to receive over $3.8 billion this year. Israel remains a top recipient of US military aid, which has totaled $158 billion since World War II, while it has continued to expand settlements on Palestinian land in the Occupied West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law. The current humanitarian crisis is rooted in the displacement of Palestinian communities both in 1948 and an ongoing Israeli military occupation since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

“For 75 years, the State of Israel has built and enacted a system of apartheid that privileges Jewish Israelis over Palestinians indigenous to the land,” said Fox. “Palestinians live with less rights and and less freedom simply because they are not Jewish. And human rights experts …agree that it meets the definitions under international law of apartheid.”

Criticism over the US’s role in the conflict was echoed on Wednesday by a high-ranking State Department official who resigned over the US’s weapons sales to Israel.

“I believe to the core of my soul that the response Israel is taking, and with it the American support both for that response, and for the status quo of the occupation,” Josh Paul, a former director at the State Department, wrote in a Linkedin post, “will only lead to more and deeper suffering for both the Israeli and the Palestinian people.”

At the rally, speakers also accused politicians of stoking Islamophobia by dehumanizing Palestinians, noting the death of six-year-old Palestinian-American Wadea Al Fayoume, who was stabbed to death the previous Saturday because he was Muslim, police say. 

“Our poor six-year-old baby—my child is the same age. There is just no excuse for the kind of utter cruelty and dehumanization that is being drummed up by our very politicians. And that’s what we’re here to say no to,” said Fox.

The conflict’s growing death toll and a growing anti-war movement is turning US public opinion against the conflict, Jewish activists said. Two days earlier, at another protest, over 30 were arrested after hundreds of Jews led by the group If Not Now surrounded and blockaded the White House to demand a ceasefire.

Congressional support for a ceasefire remains small, but growing. On Wednesday, Congressional Progressive Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal was among the Democratic lawmakers who signed on to calls for an immediate ceasefire, noted JVP’s political director, Beth Miller. 

“What we’re seeing is that as progressives see more clearly what is happening in Gaza, the demand for ceasefire is rapidly becoming more normalized, and it’s coming from the progressive left of the party,” said Miller. “We anticipate that that will only grow, and the more and more we make it clear, by showing up en masse on the Capitol like this, that this is what their voters want and demand.”

Holtzman said she and other Jewish protesters were compelled to attend the rally and risk arrest to call for a ceasefire because of the atrocities experienced by their own families. 

“I grew up in a family where, in my past, my grandmother lost several siblings in the Holocaust because of people who were ready to commit a genocide. I cannot possibly allow in my name that to ever happen again,” said Holtzman.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.