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VCU students gather to mourn Palestinian deaths, occupation

People gather for a candle light vigil
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
People gather for a vigil for Palestine on Thursday, October 19, 2023 at Monroe Park in Richmond, Virginia.

Hundreds of people gathered Thursday near Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus for a vigil commemorating Palestinians killed during Israel’s recent military offensive and decades of occupation.

Students and others came to Monroe Park carrying Palestinian flags and wearing keffiyehs, a traditional Palestinian scarf. Participants largely stayed quiet and lit tea lights that were placed in a ring around the fountain in the center of the park.

More than 4,000 Palestinians and more than 1,400 Israelis have been killed since an Oct. 7 attack by the militant group Hamas, which controls the occupied Gaza Strip, the Associated Press reported Friday. It is the latest surge in violence between Israelis and Palestinians since the Jewish state was formed in 1948.

Speakers from VCU’s Palestinian Student Organization and Richmond’s branch of the American Muslims for Palestine called on students to stay active in their calls for a ceasefire, as well as the end of Israel's occupation.

“We are complicit as a country in apartheid and genocide — either we stand up for the human rights or we don’t,” said Zaid Mahdawi, president of AMP’s Richmond branch.

Israeli and international human rights groups have said Palestinians living in territory occupied by Israel suffer under apartheid. The 2002 Rome Statute defines apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

“The truth is coming to light in a way that has never happened before. The occupation can no longer keep misinforming the American public,” said Mahdawi.

Mahdawi gives remarks
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Zaid Mahdawi gives remarks during a vigil for Palestine on Thursday, October 19, 2023 at Monroe Park in Richmond, Virginia.

He asked participants to attend upcoming protests this weekend in Washington, D.C. and Richmond, and maintain the momentum in person and online.

The U.S. sends billions of dollars in aid to Israel every year, and the administration is currently proposing an additional $14 billion to “help with air and missile defense systems,” the Associated Press reported.

“That needs to come to an end,” Mahdawi said of the annual aid.

At VCU, many students did not want to speak to the media, some even covering their faces when in view of cameras. Across the country, students have seen job offers rescinded or their identities publicized on mobile billboards after signing statements supporting Palestinians.

Mahdawi also criticized public statements by VCU President Michael Rao, saying they’ve made students feel unsafe. Sen. Mark Warner and other elected officials also have used terms like “barbaric” when describing the Hamas attack.

“I came out because I felt it was important not just as a person, but as a friend of people who are from Palestine,” said Ashley Brown, a VCU student who said her Palestinian friends have been talking about the occupation for years. “It’s hard to say, but the United States should not stand up for a genocide — what is happening in Palestine is a genocide.”

A person picks up a candle
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
People light candles during a vigil for Palestine on Thursday, October 19, 2023 at Monroe Park in Richmond, Virginia.

Virginia’s representatives in Washington have been emphatic about their support for Israel.

At a Sunday campaign event for a Henrico County legislative race, Warner did not answer a question about supporting investigations into whether weapons the U.S. has sent to Israel have been used in strikes that have resulted in the deaths of Palestinians.

“I stand with what the president and the overwhelming majority of members in both parties in Congress says, that Israel has a right to defend itself,” he told VPM News.

Sens. Warner and Tim Kaine both said the administration’s decision to send two Norfolk-based carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean was “appropriate.”

“We're going to do all we can to provide Israel support in this battle against Hamas and provide support as we try to obtain the release of hostages, including Americans who are held hostage in Gaza,” Kaine said during a Thursday press event.

Both Democratic senators have said they support sending $100 million to Gaza in humanitarian aid.


Jahd Khalil covers local government, the economy and labor issues for VPM News. Previously, he covered state government for RadioIQ and was a freelance journalist based in Egypt.