Hundreds of students gathered at the south steps of the Rotunda to participate in a walkout Wednesday at 12:30 p.m., calling for the University to acknowledge casualties in Gaza as genocide and divest from the military technology used in the siege on Gaza. The group held protest signs, chanted and wore the colors of the Palestinian flag.
As the students began convening, bystanders watched and a small group of individuals in support of Israel formed. The students walked from the Lawn through McCormick Road before returning to their starting location, where Israel supporters still stood.
In early October, Hamas — the militant Islamist group that has controlled Gaza since 2006 — launched a surprise attack on Israel which has since resulted in a staggering death toll. More than 20 days into the war, Palestinian officials say the death toll in Gaza has risen above 7,000, including close to 3,000 children. In Israel, officials say more than 1,400 people have been killed and over 5,000 injured.
U.S. aid is currently estimated to make up 16 percent of Israel’s defense budget excluding missile defense systems — a figure that could increase with Biden’s new request for a $106 billion international aid package that includes Israel.
According to one of the walkout’s student leaders, the University maintains relationships with several weapons manufacturing companies that currently provide arms to Israeli defense. These companies include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics among others.
“These companies are the ones that are making the weapons that are killing [Palestinians] right now, so we have a responsibility to stand up from where we are,” the student said.
15 student organizations — including Students for Justice in Palestine, Young Democratic Socialists of America and Dissenters — partnered to organize the walkout, with many others supporting, promoting and attending. According to informational flyers, the event was part of a national walkout demanding institutions divest from Israel’s occupation and “genocide of the Palestinian people.” The cry for universities’ divestment from military technology reflects a national conversation about U.S. funding for Israel’s defense.
The walkout also included two additional demands — an end to the siege and U.S. funding for Israel, as well as the University’s explicit acknowledgment of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip as genocide.
The latter demand is far from the University’s current stance on the issue. President Jim Ryan’s University-wide email regarding the conflict addressed the events as a tragedy and condemned Hamas’ “horrific violence” against civilians.
During the walkout, a small group of counter protesters held an Israeli flag by the Rotunda and sang over the “Free Palestine” chants. According to one of these students, they sang the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” which translates to “The Hope.”
Tensions between the groups were high — students supporting Israel remained at the site as the pro-Palestine individuals walked around Grounds through McCormick Road, and at points the two groups raised their voices at each other as students holding the Palestinian flag attempted to cover the flag of Israel.
Upon returning to their starting location, walkout student organizers stood on the Rotunda steps and led a series of chants next to the Israeli students. Two Palestinian students joined in leading these chants, one of whom lived in Palestine.
“I just want to say, from someone who experienced the occupation, I don't get to say that I experience what's going on,” the student said. “I've been through three wars and I cannot relate to what the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip right now are going through because this is no longer a war. This is — say it again — a genocide.”
Participants in the walkout held signs read statements such as “Your tax dollars fund genocide” and “End apartheid.” Chants written on a handout distributed at the beginning of the walkout also echoed these sentiments, including “Israel, you can’t hide, you’re committing genocide” and “Let Gaza live.”
The New York Times and most American leaders have not used the term “genocide” to refer to Israel’s actions. However, the sentiment has widely circulated across other sources, including a controversial post by activist Greta Thunberg.
At the University, the walkout is one of many student and organization responses to the Israel-Hamas war. Since Oct. 7, the University has seen a community vigil in support of Israel, a demonstration from Students for Justice in Palestine and multiple statements from University and local organizations. Two students who spoke at the walkout said they had never seen such high student engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Awareness matters and the amount of people here, I’ve never seen at U.Va. … and I’ve been here for undergrad [and] I’m doing my masters here,” one of these students said.
Both the pro-Palestine group and the pro-Israel group remained in the same space, both holding their respective flags until the end of the walkout.
The protest marked the last day of the national week of action for Palestine sponsored by organizations like National Justice for Students in Palestine and Palestinian Youth Movement.