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Israel-Hamas tensions aren't new — but this level of pro-Palestinian support in the U.S. is

Growing pro-Palestinian support and rallies show a break in the long-held bipartisan support Israel has enjoyed in the U.S., activists say.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensified in recent weeks before the cease-fire announced Thursday, tens of thousands of people gathered in striking numbers across the country, demanding an end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories — and, in some cases, the dissolution of the Israeli state.

At rallies in cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, diverse groups of people demanded that the U.S. stop funding Israel's military, saying the Biden administration is complicit in "war crimes" in the region, as the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, hit Gaza with airstrikes and artillery and Hamas launched rockets into Israel.

Pro-Palestinian protesters gather in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Saturday to mark Nakba Day, an annual commemoration of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948, and to demand an end to Israeli airstrikes over the Gaza Strip.Julius Constantine Motal / NBC News

The massive rallies signal a break from decades of bipartisan support Israel has enjoyed, said Palestinian activists, who said they believe the shift was spurred by social media, the George Floyd protests last summer and the chummy relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Donald Trump, which unsettled many progressives.

At least 230 Palestinians and 12 Israelis have been killed in the last two weeks, according to officials on both sides. At least 65 Palestinian children were among those killed in Israel's bombardment of the tiny, blockaded Gaza Strip, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

That Palestinians make up the majority of the death toll is familiar to the people of Gaza, more than 2,100 of whom died in the 2014 Gaza War compared to 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians.

"Nothing that we are seeing right now being done by the IDF, Netanyahu's government or by the settlers is different," Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said of the recent escalation. "What's different is that the Palestinian people are united in this moment, a collective and unified population that is fed up."

Another difference: support from Americans.

Demonstrators raise their fists during a protest Friday against Israel and in support of Palestinians at the Federal Building in Los Angeles.Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP

Pro-Palestinian protests took shape across the country last weekend. One in Brooklyn, New York, on Saturday lasted several hours as people flooded the streets and blocked part of a highway. Photos showed a sea of Palestinian flags among thousands of people. In Los Angeles, protesters caused heavy traffic congestion as they marched with "Free Palestine" signs and shouted "long live intifada." Hundreds in Houston marched in solidarity with Gaza on Tuesday, holding a silent prayer outside the Israeli Consulate. The same day, pro-Palestinian protesters in Michigan booed President Joe Biden during his visit to an auto plant.

Abuznaid said social media is a big reason for the unity and growing solidarity.

"We are no longer dependent on major media networks to tell our story," he said. "We are tired of our stories not being told, and we aren't waiting for permission anymore."

Abuznaid said that despite complicated feelings about sharing images of the destruction in Gaza, it's crucial to illuminate what's happening on the ground and to build global support for Palestinian liberation

Recently, a viral clip on Twitter compared public Snapchat stories from Israel and Gaza. In Tel Aviv, things appeared to be business as usual as people enjoyed sunny weather, went out for meals and played with their children. In Gaza, the stories showed streets covered in rubble and residents surveying flattened buildings and homes.

"Images and videos that people are seeing today are making it all that much clearer to them that it's not just a, quote-unquote, 'conflict between both sides.' The power imbalance is so great," Abuznaid said.

A 2019 poll conducted by the left-wing think tank Data for Progress found that 64 percent of Democrats supported reducing aid to Israel.

"It's clear we are seeing a surge in the movement for basic humans rights for Palestinian people. It's no longer enough for the Democratic Party and Democratic Party leadership to blindly stand by Netanyahu," said Marcela Mulholland, the group's political director.

In Washington, progressive lawmakers are sharpening their criticism of Israel, which Mulholland said used to be a "third rail" in American politics.

This week, a group of progressive Democratic lawmakers announced a move to block the sale of $735 million of precision-guided U.S. weapons to Israel.

"The U.S. has long sold the Israeli government billions of dollars in weaponry without placing any conditions regarding the human rights of Palestinians," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a statement Wednesday. "In so doing, we have directly contributed to the death, displacement and disenfranchisement of millions."

That kind of statement from a member of the House, which might have been rare a decade ago, is a clear sign of change, said Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

"The flood of courageous support for Palestinian rights" from members of Congress is a sign that "all the work at the grassroots and civil society levels may finally begin to affect policy change," said Barghouti, who said Israel is an apartheid state.

"We are not yet at what I've called our South Africa moment, but we are nearing it," he said in an email.

The "seismic" shift didn't appear overnight, he said, and it was in part boosted by the uprisings last summer in the wake of George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police.

Some Black activists in the U.S. have aligned themselves with pro-Palestinian causes for decades, but the efforts were especially strengthened during the summer of 2014. The Gaza War raged at the same time that Michael Brown, an 18-year old Black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

"We were marching for Mike Brown and screaming 'Free Palestine,'" said a prominent voice for Palestinian liberation, Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of media, cities and solutions at Temple University.

The connections found traction again last summer as people took to the streets to protest police violence and anti-Black racism.

"It's hard to see George Floyd with a knee on his neck and only be outraged by that," said Hill, who said a rise in consciousness turned the American public's eyes on Israel.

Last summer, Palestinian social media users offered Americans tips about what to do if they are tear-gassed at a George Floyd protest, claiming the U.S.-made gas deployed by U.S. police was used by the IDF against Palestinian protesters.

"International solidarity has changed the conversation and sharpened our political analysis," Hill said, adding that Trump's relationship with Netanyahu also played a role.

During his presidency, Trump stayed close to Netanyahu, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and abandoning a long-held U.S. position that Jewish settlements in the West Bank were inconsistent with international law. Had it been implemented, his Middle East peace plan would have expanded Israeli territory. Many anti-Trump Democrats were suddenly forced to reconsider their stances on Israel: If Trump supported Netanyahu's regime, should they?

All that has created a climate in which "to be progressive is to be also supportive of the Palestinian liberation struggle," Barghouti said, adding that being "progressive except on Palestine has become ethically untenable."

Many of Israel's supporters contest that idea, including Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., who has repeatedly asserted in the last few weeks that one can and should be both progressive and pro-Israel.

People demonstrate in support of Palestinians during a protest outside the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles on May 15, 2021.Patrick T. Fallon / AFP - Getty Images

Roz Rothstein, founder and CEO of the pro-Israel advocacy group Stand With Us, said the shifting support for Palestinians comes in part from a lack of education about the issue in the U.S. She said people don't realize that reducing aid to Israel — including funds for the Iron Dome, the anti-missile system that intercepts rockets launched toward Israel — would "empower Hamas."

Israel would be carpet-bombed if it didn't have the Iron Dome, Rothstein said. She said U.S. residents see huge amounts of disinformation about Israel online, which is abetted by "advocates of Palestinians [who] have inserted themselves into every important American struggle."

Abuznaid said that no matter the reason, the surge in support for Palestinians is electrifying.

"Gradually, we are winning," he said.