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The Blue Banner

The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

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Actions in Asheville continue alongside escalated violence in Palestine

UNC Asheville freshman Austin Yarborough shares their perspective at vigil honoring lives of Palestinians killed, Nov. 29, 2023.

In large LED lettering, across the Reed Plaza stage read: “Free Palestine.”

“I’m not surprised on a college campus that’s often seen as kind of a space of debate, although there was a vigil that is really a space of grieving more than anything else. So I think his intervention was not appropriate to the space or the moment,” said Claire Clark, an event organizer with the Party For Socialism and Liberation. 

At UNC Asheville’s Reed Plaza, on Nov. 29, 2023, a vigil was held to honor the lives of the Palestinian lives lost. Candles were lit, flowers were laid on the plaza’s steps, stories and poems were shared. A long printed list of Palestinians killed was laid out, spanning from the doors of Brown Dining Hall to the front walkway of the Highsmith Student Union. Members of Reject Raytheon AVL and PSL, such as Clark, were present. During the closing remarks, UNCA freshman Austin Yarborugh, wearing a UNCA sweatshirt, took the stage to express a contrasting perspective. He was met with backlash from those present. 

Yarborough, while on stage, referenced the LED signage, by asking the audience what Palestine should be freed from. Yarborough was quickly guided off stage by Clark and other organizers. Afterwards, he walked into Brown Dining Hall to eat dinner, where he spoke of his action and perspective. As of Feb. 16, 2024, according to Al Jazeera, 28,775 people, 12,300 of whom children, have been killed in Gaza. In the West Bank, 395, 105 of them children. In Israel, 1,139 have been killed with 8,730 injured. There are 73,002 injured across Gaza and the West Bank. 

“My goal, and this is the first thing I said when I went there. I’m not trying to diminish any of the deaths that have happened. I wanted to point out the Israeli deaths too. I think if we’re gonna acknowledge one death, we should be anti-death and all deaths. Innocent lives taken are bad. You can have a vigil like they had, but there was many political insinuations there. They talked about BDS. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that, but I would say it’s complete propaganda,” Yarborough said. “What I wanted to talk about was the Palestinians and how we should be freeing the Palestinians, from their oppressive leaders, which includes Israel, but it also includes Hamas, it also includes the PLA, that also includes the totality of Arab countries around Israel that use the Palestinians as a pawn to fight Israel. These are the real problems Palestinians face.” 

According to Yarborough, their intent was to shine light on the Israeli lives taken on Oct. 7, 2023, not to agitate those present at the vigil. On the 7th, the Palestinian political and military group, Hamas, launched a surprise attack on Israel, leading to the death of around 1,200 Israelis and foreigners, as reported by Reuters. More than 240 were taken hostage and, according to AP News, about 100 hostages remain. One attendee asked Yarborough what he knew about oppression. Yarborough said, on stage, that oppressed people too can be the oppressors, to the vigil’s attendees. 

“200 to 240 hostages. I think there is a false equivalency between Palestinian deaths and Israeli deaths. I don’t think the deaths of civilians in war and in terrorism, where you have people going into a country and beheading people, massacring families who are just going around their daily lives, relishing in this, literally there are stories of people going into families murdering their whole family and eating their breakfast after they killed their family, and then taking all these hostages going back into Israel, right? This is a level of barbaric behavior that is inhumane. It’s uncivilized. This does not compare to the deaths of Palestinians. When people make a one to one comparison, saying that more Palestinians have died than Israelis, yes, that’s true, but I don’t think it tells the whole story,” Yarborough said.

According to Clark, as an organizer, she maintained a responsibility to deescalate the situation and to ensure the safety of all attendees. Despite his claims, Yarborough did not seem willing to have a conversation regarding his position, Clark said.

“You don’t really know, when someone hops up and starts doing something like that what their emotional state is, like, are they going to be someone that’s going to become progressively more aggressive? You have 120 people in the crowd who are not welcoming of that kind of self centering interaction in a space of mourning. I was perfectly open to a conversation, although he, in the end, did not choose to have that with me. My concern was to get him out of this, that space, because as an organizer my first obligation is to the safety of everyone that has answered a call. That’s the organizer’s side of it,” Clark said. 

In regards to conversations discussing oppression, Clark shared their position, explaining the nuance of the current conflict and the ability to discern the truth in an abundance of current information and media. According to Clark, Israeli occupation does not serve the interest of Jewish people, but rather, that of the United States. 

“There’s a clear difference between the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor. Between the violence of those who are striking out for liberation, from occupation, from apartheid and genocide and those who wish to maintain those systems. I recognize the specific sensitivity of Israel and the history of the Jewish people, but I, for one, don’t see Israel as a legitimate expression of Jewish self determination. Israel is a creature of the United States and it is a servant and a proxy of U.S. imperialism,” Clark said. “I would love to live in a world in which there is no violence, but we live in a world that is defined and maintained by violence. I don’t see that there’s any room for us to equate or draw a similarity to the violence of the oppressed seeking liberation is in any way shape or form in the same universe as the violence of a nuclear armed military superpower, unleashing the largest bombing campaign since the Vietnam War, on an area the size of the Philadelphia where 2 million people live in total captivity. I don’t think there’s a space right now, while an active genocide is occurring for us to say, ‘Well, what about October 7? What about Hamas?’ That argument is just a talking point for propaganda. It has no basis in any moral or ethical code I would call valid.”

According to Yarborough, in regards to the backlash he received, people often react, in part, from a one-sided, biased perspective fostered by their environment. Despite coming from two very different, separate perspectives, this sentiment similarly matched that of Alex Severa’s, the president of SDS, who spoke on one-sided, biased perspectives perpetuated by media algorithms in response to comments from adjunct assistant professor Jamie Johnson, on UNCA’s quad, Nov. 15, 2023.

“I think it’s a very common thing in America, where people don’t spend enough time interacting with people of the opposite opinions. They create this false sense everybody thinks the same thing they do. Then, when they interact with people that don’t, they become very disoriented. It triggers them. It triggers me. I get triggered all the time, so I can understand why they had that reaction. I don’t agree with it, I don’t think it was right, but I understand why they happen,” Yarborough said. 

In Asheville, on Dec. 12, 2023 members of the PSL spoke at an Asheville city council meeting demanding the city council adopt a resolution calling for a permanent ceasefire. Several spoke during public comments, including Clark, who passed out copies of the first draft resolution to each city council member. Internationally, the United Nations demanded an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. A resolution calling for a ceasefire received three-quarters of member states’ votes in support, according to a Reuters report. 150 countries voted for a ceasefire and only 10 voted no. 

Of those 10 countries were Israel and the United States, who believe a ceasefire would strictly benefit Hamas. On Dec. 29, South Africa filed a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice for its “genocidal acts” against Palestinians in Gaza. Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lior Haiat said on social media that South Africa’s claims lack a factual and legal basis. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, on a live television broadcast, said Israel’s actions compare to those of apartheid in South Africa. 

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a Dec. 12, 2023 statement: “I will not allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo,” referring to the Oslo Accords of 1993, aimed at promoting Palestinian self rule in Gaza and the West Bank. Coincidentally, Sam Salaymeh, a dual citizen in both the U.S. and Jordan, had shared a personal anecdote regarding the Oslo Accords, over a December 2023 zoom call, from their N.C. home near Charlotte. 

“Because of my upbringing, I got an inside scoop. For the Oslo Accords, my cousin was in charge of their security. In charge as a security detail for the negotiating team. It’s kind of funny. I’m a 16-year-old kid and I get to hang out with them at a hotel that officially didn’t exist. By coincidence,” Salaymeh said. 

Salaymeh is the son of two Palestinian refugees, who met during the Six Day War. Both were kicked out of Jerusalem into Jordan and met during this process. Salaymeh grew up in Jordan alongside his brothers and has invested themself heavily in the conflict’s history. He is the only member of his family with U.S. citizenship, therefore he is the only member of his family who can enter Palestine legally. As a child, before acquiring U.S. citizenship, he says, he used to be stripped down while crossing Israeli checkpoints. With U.S. citizenship, this does not happen anymore, he says. 

Since Dec. 12, 2023, actions have carried on in Asheville as casualties continue in Palestinian territories. A pro-Palestine demonstration took place at Biltmore Farms on Dec. 23, 2023, who donated 100-acres that now house South Asheville’s Pratt & Whitney site. A Shut It Down For Palestine rally and march filled downtown Asheville’s streets on Dec. 31 2023. “The occupation has got to go,” attendees cheered. Three more Shut It Down For Palestine events occurred on Jan. 21, 28 and Feb. 11 2024, where an emphasis was placed on the firing of 10 Trader Joe’s employees, reportedly fired for participating in a nationwide walkout for Palestine on Nov. 9, 2023. 

Another Asheville city council meeting occurred on Jan. 9 and Jan. 23, 2024, where demands for a ceasefire resolution continued. On Jan. 13, a March On Washington For Gaza took place in D.C, similar to the Nov. 4, 2023 protest, the National March on Washington to Free Palestine, which itself was followed by the March For Israel on Nov. 14, 2023. 

On Feb. 4, 2024, a day of community gathering took place at Different Wrld in solidarity and action with Palestine. Palestinian food was served, Palestinian short films were screened and a benefit show was played to raise funds for the Palestinian Youth Movement. That same day, at AB Tech, two Palestinian journalists spoke on their first hand experiences in Palestine. According to PSL organizer Cody Cogdell, “AB Tech got money from the state, county and Appalachian Regional Commission. The state promised $5 million to help build the training site next to Pratty & Whitney and another $4.2 million from the state community college system for recruitment, screening, assessment and training of potential Pratt & Whitney employees.”

The day before, on Feb. 3, Unequolada hosted a Palestine vigil and solidarity event in the Qualla Boundary, a small piece of federally recognized land, designated to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Signs written in both Cherokee and English were displayed, cheers in Arabic and English were chanted, speeches were given and a dance circle brought the event to a close. 

“Me personally, it’s been super hard to keep going everyday like everything is normal. It’s been really hard. Usually, I’m an artist. I do my own creativity and creative work, but I haven’t been able to lately. It feels like everything is spinning so fast and I just keep looking at the images and it makes me feel so small compared to everything. That’s how I’ve been feeling. I’ve been grieving a lot,” said Lou Montelongo, a community activist, born and raised Cherokee. 

According to Montelongo and several other speakers at the vigil, there lies a strong intersectionality between the displacement of Cherokee, a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, where the U.S. Department of War forcibly removed nearly 17,000 Cherokee from their homes, and the current conflict in Palestine. 

Tsali, a Cherokee leader, resisted the federal government’s removal efforts following the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. Tsali, according to the N.C. Department Of Natural And Cultural Resources, was captured and executed, his death acting in exchange for the lives of the band he once protected. The Eastern Band Of Cherokee Indians descended from this small band alongside other groups who avoided the U.S. Army’s removal, hiding in the Great Smoky Mountains, protecting their land. 

“In church they tell you that this isn’t just a religious war, but that the Bible tells you that this is the promised land and this pre-dated in the Bible, so we should just sit back and watch. I had to grow out of that church setting, that religious setting, and also understand that was forced onto us. A lot of people accepted it as a means of survival. When you look at Zionism, they took the play by play of Manifest Destiny. The only difference is that Israel was the promised land,” Montelongo said. 

To Montelongo’s right stands Jakeli Swimmer, an EBCI cartoonist and activist who also spoke at the vigil, providing further explanation of the conflict’s significance. At the beginning of the event, Asfour by Aida El Ayoubi played from a speaker. 

“Before all of this, before the Nakba, they were living in their homelands. They were unfortunately removed. The imperialism we spread across the world has been imposed on Palestinian people. How can you mirror the U.S. government without eradicating the indigenous population? That’s the blueprint,” Swimmer said. “If you look at the whole process of western religion, it’s always been eradicating the spirituality native people had. One way to do that is if you destroy land. Look at the military conquest that has happened. The native Cherokee started living in homesteads and in log cabins because they kept burning our crops. Having a communal crop field, we’d have to make smaller yields, so we start living further and less communally. You can see it happening.” 

In the following week, on Feb. 6, 2024, a resolution for a ceasefire was drafted by local activists alongside a presentation, later presented in Asheville city council on Feb. 13. Several local businesses signed in support. As of Feb. 13, a petition, currently available, calling for a ceasefire is open to signatures. 

Amidst the organizing discussions were mentions of Zebulon Baird Vance, whose monument was removed from Pack Square in May, 2021. Vance, a white supremacist, served as the 37th and 43rd governor of North Carolina. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, between 1868 and 1873, Vance wrote his speech, “The Scattered Nation,” which advocated on behalf of Jewish people of central and western European descent, while condemning Jewish people of color. 

This speech, as reported by the Mountain Xpress, was shared across the United States in lyceums and lecture halls. Amongst those working on the ceasefire resolution and presentation, they say through its support and memorialization of Vance, the city of Asheville helped historically perpetuate Zionism, which coincides with his white supremacist values. 

Two days later, on Feb. 8, 2024, Severa and other SDS members hung a banner from a railing in Highsmith Student Union, above the Grotto, on Thursday. The banner read: “Free Palestine. SDS’s Demands: Divest from Weapon Companies, Approve a Ceasefire Resolution, End Partnership with Bank of America, Be Transparent with Investments.” A statement was read and cheers were shared. The banner was removed shortly after its posting. A video of the banner drop was posted online. 

“One of the biggest things is more community involvement. We’ve been in need of more people from the community being open and understanding to these things and not just looking at it as: ‘oh my grandma says it’s bad or my dad told me I can’t do this.’” Swimmer said. “Actually listening and opening your eyes to our histories, opening your eyes to other people’s histories and being sure you’re respectful in multiple ways and not taking up space, knowing when and when not to talk.” 

Over Zoom, nearly two months prior, Salaymeh had shared anecdotes about their father and grandfather. He also spoke on the supposed god-given right to land, as stated in religious text, invoking sentiments similarly expressed by Monentongi. According to Salaymeh, this sentiment is based on logic, rather than theology. 

“My father, who was born and raised in Palestine, was kicked out of his home in 1948 and his home was given to an Israeli military commander. He died in 2019, unable to cross the border back to go to the property he actually legally owns in Jerusalem, or in Jericho, because they moved to Jericho. My dad would drive in Jordan to the border, across the River Jordan, put down a lawn chair and watch Jericho because it’s right there, and sit there and weep. That is my father. Since 1948, we’ve been waiting on a UN resolution. My dad died dreaming of the day he could go back to his home,” Salaymeh said. “We can get into the political history, what the United Nations thinks and the right of self defense, whether it exists or not, but let’s talk about an individual. My grandfather built a home after World War One. All of the sudden, the army comes and we’re kicked out. That home is given to an officer of that army. Isn’t that theft? Doesn’t that same text which gives you the right to this land tell you not to steal? If we are going to follow the text, follow the text. Don’t pick and choose. What we have, from my point of view, is the hijacking of historical texts. It’s a hijacking of a religious text in order to create sympathy towards it and some form of legitimacy in order to go and work on this colonial settler project. Some people absolutely believe it. Great. More power to you, believe it all you want, but don’t believe it and then tell them you’re being religious when you justify killing.” 

Salaymeh provided further explanation. He also suggested speaking with a theologian. An email was sent to a local Rabbi, but no full response was received preceding this article’s publication. Efforts will continue. On Feb. 9, 2024, Netanyahu ordered the IDF to invade and evacuate civilians in Rafah, home to a refugee camp acknowledged as the last safe zone in Gaza. As reported by the United Nations, 600,000 children have taken shelter in Rafah. Since the beginning of the conflict, its population has grown five times over, now making it the most densely populated area on Earth. Many of these people lack shelter. According to a Reuters article, on Feb. 16, Gaza’s largest functioning hospital, Nasser Hospital, was raided. Five intensive care patients died. 

“I respect Judaism. I respect Judaism quite a bit, so in no way I’m saying this as a religious thing, or stand against the religion in any way, shape or form. I actually stand very strongly against a political ideal that has hijacked religion and leveraged it. A lot of the support I’ve gotten is from my Jewish friends, because a lot of the Jewish population in the United States say: ‘hey, not in my name,’” Salaymeh said. 

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