TAMPA — About 200 people packed Lykes Gaslight Park in downtown Tampa on Friday, waving miniature Israeli flags and blue and white signs that read “America Stands with Israel.”
A few hours later, a Tampa teenager who was beaten by Israeli police last month talked about his experience during a briefing on Capitol Hill.
The violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza Strip has been a controversial and divisive issue, and the opposing public sentiment about the latest military struggles was especially apparent in Tampa on Friday.
Even the beating of Tariq Khdeir in Jerusalem is seen differently, depending on the perspective of who’s doing the viewing.
What happened to Tariq Khdeir, 15, in Jerusalem was terrible, said Mendy Dubrowski, one of the organizers of the Tampa Bay Stands with Israel rally. She said the fact the police officer who was filmed beating the boy into unconsciousness has been suspended shows the Israeli government is committed to justice.
“It highlights the difference between Israel and Hamas,” he said.
Friday’s rally was organized to unite everyone across the bay area who wanted to publicly express their support of the Israeli people, who are constantly under threat from the Palestinian Hamas group, said Dubrowski, the rabbi and executive director at Chabad of South Tampa.
“Every person that comes out lends positive energy and supports the cause,” he said.
Organizers read out during the rally the names of all the Israeli soldiers who have been killed during the fighting in the Gaza Strip, along the border of Israel and Egypt. They also played a recording of an air raid siren, something they said people in Israel hear almost every day.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes and Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen made speeches expressing their support for Israel. Cohen reflected on a 2011 trade delegation trip with Mayor Bob Buckhorn and a visit to Tampa’s sister city in Israel, Ashdod. During that trip, the Tampa Jewish Federation presented the city of Ashdod with a $108,000 donation to be used for medical supplies and to renovate a bomb shelter.
“Now, they find themselves in need of the very bomb shelter that we in Tampa helped build,” Cohen said during the rally.
The Israeli army has been criticized for the amount of force it has used during its attacks on the Gaza Strip. As of Friday, at least 1,600 people in the territory, mostly civilians, had been killed and more than 8,000 had been wounded. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians.
Scott Thomas, pastor of the Free Life Chapel in Lakeland and a member of Christians United for Israeli, said during the rally that the Hamas group violated six cease-fires within the past month, the latest unraveling Friday morning after Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier. The group constantly and publicly expresses its desire to “obliterate” the Israeli people and the Jewish faith, he said.
“The truth is this: Israel’s only option is to neutralize Hamas,” Thomas said.
Khdeir, who will be a sophomore at the Universal Academy of Florida, became part of the international discussion when he was beaten by Israeli police after a violent protest at his cousin’s funeral in early July. Khdeir had been in Jerusalem visiting relatives since June.
His cousin, 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped and burned alive by Israeli extremists in what Israeli police said was a revenge attack after three Jewish teens were killed in the Gaza Strip.
During a protest after his cousin’s funeral, Israeli police said Khdeir was one of several masked protesters hurling stones at officers. Amateur videos showed the police badly beating Khdeir after his hands were bound. His family denies that he was throwing stones during the protest.
On Friday, the teen sat on a panel in Washington, D.C., with several others who argued that Israel’s use of force is excessive and a violation of international law.
“The Palestinian people over there are suffering and I lived with them for six weeks, and got a small taste of what they have been going through,” Khdeir said during the briefing.
Over two days, Khdeir and Hassan Shibly, his lawyer and director of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations, met with members of Congress. They also met with members of the White House National Security Council, senior officers from the United State State Department, the Human Rights Commission and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Shibly said.
“We got strong support on the Hill,” Shibly said. “This is the beginning of change in having a more balanced understanding of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict.”
Reporter José Patiño Girona contributed to this report, which also includes information from The Associated Press.