“There are Palestinians in this community who need our support and deserve to have their voices heard.”
With chants of Free! Free! Palestine! and From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free! organizers from Florida Palestine Network held a rally Friday evening in front of Winter Garden City Hall, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to U.S. military aid to Israel.
The energetic but peaceful event drew about 80 people.
They came from around the corner and from as far as Ocala. They came draped in red, black and green Palestinian flags and wrapped in keffiyeh scarves. They came with their children. Young people came with their grandparents. They came carrying signs: Ceasefire Now! Stop the Genocide! They came wearing shirts bearing slogans: You don’t need to be Muslim to stand up for Palestinians. You just need to be human.
Samira Sarut, a rally organizer and longtime Winter Garden resident, explained in a brief interview before the event, that Florida Palestine Network has been holding regular rallies throughout Greater Orlando and Orange County to protest the "genocide happening in Gaza, Palestine, funded by our tax dollars.” But the organization hadn’t yet staged a demonstration in Winter Garden “to vocalize our demands for ceasefire and an end to the military aid to the Israeli occupation.”
"There are Arabs in this community,” Sarut, originally from Syria, said. “There are Muslims in this community. There are Palestinians in this community who need our support and deserve to have their voices heard ... because we've been here a long time."
“Citizens are waking up that our leaders don’t seem to really care, and it’s very disappointing, so we need to be out here every chance we get to demand a ceasefire,” Celia, a rally organizer, and Sarut’s sister, told VoxPopuli. Another longtime Winter Garden resident, she said she hasn’t seen much activism here.
“We’re going to change that,” she said. “Wake up, Winter Garden. This genocide needs to end. The ethnic cleansing needs to end.”
Caleb Hudson, who said he lives “around the corner” in downtown Winter Garden, told VoxPopuli he came out because the events in Gaza marked the first time he's been “incensed so much by something that’s going on on another side of the world.”
He arrived at the rally early and hoped for a big turnout.
“I feel like everybody should be down here,” Hudson said. “It’s an atrocity what’s going on over there. It can’t even be considered a war. I don’t know what else to do but come down here and show support. I’ve never seen anything like this [rally] happen in this part of Winter Garden, so maybe when they start blaring into their megaphones, [people will] start waking up to what’s going on.”
Layla Zayed came to the rally from Davenport, with her son Hani, 6, and her daughter Lillianna, 2, in a stroller. The Palestinian mom told VoxPopuli that she’s originally from the West Bank, but has friends trying to leave Gaza. Watching events unfold in Gaza from Central Florida in the fall, Zayed said that at first, “We were frozen. We were paralyzed. I wouldn’t leave the house. I would go to drop my kids off at school, get groceries and come back. That would be it.” Three months into Israel’s war, she has to carry on with daily activities here even as friends and family are suffering there. “It’s very hard,” she said.
Zayed wants Winter Garden to understand that Gazans are “people with lives, livelihoods and families, and daily actives and memories. Just like how we’re living here, they’re living there. Now they don’t have that. Hopefully being here [at the rally] will make a difference.”
As the sky dimmed and with the glow of city hall’s lobby lights behind her, Sarut revved up the crowd with chants of Free! Free! Palestine! Free! Free! Gaza! We want justice! You say how? End the siege of Gaza now!
Sarut launched into her prepared speech, noting that it was “Day 105 of the genocide in Gaza.” She shared additional numbers: more than 25,000 dead — “more than half of them children” — and that the tally does not include those whose bodies are buried under the rubble.
“Every single martyr had hopes, fears, loved ones, aspirations. They were not just numbers,” Sarut told the crowd. “They were all shattered by the Israeli occupation with help from Joe Biden and the United States. The occupation commits genocide using our money.”
She called out Florida’s Republican leadership — Congressman Daniel Webster who represents Winter Garden, Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis — for inaction,
and said the Arab vote was on the line.
“We will not vote for people who do not represent us. We will not vote for people who commit genocide. We will not vote for people who get shy when we say Free! Free! Palestine! We will not vote for people who do not wholeheartedly support the liberation of the Arab world and the liberation of all oppressed people.
“Do not wait 50 years for the history books to tell you that the genocide in Gaza was a terrible, unfortunate mistake, a lapse in judgment," Sarut implored. "Stand up and speak out now. Seventy-five years of occupation is too long. Seventeen years of a siege is too long. One hundred and five days of a genocide that we are all complicit in is far too long.”
Rasha Mubarak, the Palestinian-American community activist, political strategist, and treasurer for Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib’s leadership PAC, was the rally’s main speaker.
Wearing a hoodie with Anti-Zionist Social Club on the back, Mubarak spoke of the systemic racism driving the genocide in Gaza. “If they’re not being bombarded, then they’re being starved or they’re freezing to death. They’re picking up illnesses; they don’t have access to medicine.” She noted Gaza no longer has any hospitals.
She described Florida as “one of the most racist states that comes for Black, Brown, Indigenous and queer communities” and warned that another "anti-Palestinian bill," House Bill 187 just passed the Florida House. The bill equates criticism of Israel with antisemitism. [According to the bill, "claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor" and "drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis" are such examples of antisemitism.]
“You want to talk about antisemitism? Our Jewish siblings are our strongest allies,” Mubarak told the crowd. “They put their bodies on the line. They experience antisemitism because of what Zionism means. The anti-Palestinian rhetoric, the Arab racism, Islamophobia has heightened. But we have to do the bare minimum.”
Mubarak urged rally-goers to remain “steadfast,” using the Arabic word sumood.
“We have a duty and a responsibility to continue to show up. We might be tired. We might be exhausted. We might be disenchanted. But remind yourself when you feel hopeless, that these systems — Israel, Zionism, white supremacy — are doing what they’re intended to do. They will exhaust you. They will tire you. They will gaslight. They will deflect. They will try to silence us.
“When I say it’s our duty and our responsibility you have to feel it in your core. That pain you feel in your heart, you have to channel that pain, you have to channel that grief into power, into community. Next protest, you fill up your car. You pay for someone’s Uber. You check in on one another.”
Mubarak encouraged the crowd to email or phone their Congressional representatives daily to demand a ceasefire in Gaza. Rally organizers said another way to show support is to participate in a global Buy Nothing Strike and not make purchases through Jan. 28.
Sarut had a last message as the rally began to wrap up.
“I’ve lived here a long time, and to my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve come out like this for Palestine in Winter Garden, or really anything for Arab liberation," Sarut told the crowd. "So, thank you.”
As folks began dispersing, Sedqi Aibaik, an older Palestinian man, wearing a sport coat against the night's chill, stood off to the side. His grandsons —young men in all black with keffiyeh scarves around their necks — milled around, talking. Asked what had brought him out to the rally, a grandson, who did not wish to give his name, came over to tell VoxPopuli that his grandfather mainly spoke Arabic, but that he would translate.
““He said came here because he wants to participate with the protest,” said the grandson. He added that his grandfather was born in 1936. That was before Israel’s formation in 1948 and the Nakba, when 75 percent of the area’s Palestinians were expelled from their land and homes by Zionist militias and the Israeli army, according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding.
Then Aibaik said in English, “I am coming to be with Gaza.”