Palestinians Fight to Defy Stereotypes
May 3, 2005 3:06 PM
For Charlie Elqare of SF State's General Union of Palestine Students, being called a terrorist is nothing new.
“People think that we’re all terrorists,” said Elqare. “Even on this campus. They think that because Palestine has suicide bombers that we’re going to do something violent. But we’re just a student organization out to educate the public.”
The General Union of Palestine Students, or GUPS, was founded at SF State in 1973 to spread awareness of Palestine and its people, culture and centuries-long struggle with Israel. Elqare, the organization’s co-president, joined in 2000.
The group was officially launched in 1959 in Cairo, Egypt. It sprung from the Palestinian student movement, which began in the 1920s. The Palestinian student movement was one of the first national Palestinian institutions to be formed. Shortly after its inception, there were more than 100 branches of the group worldwide, with more than 100,000 members.
According to members, the group’s message is not only about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also about human rights, justice and peace on all corners of the globe.
Loubna Qutami is an active member of GUPS. Qutami’s grandparents moved to the United States from Palestine. She did not join the group because of her Palestinian heritage, but because she said she felt an “obligation as an American.”
“For me, it’s not even about being Palestinian,” said Qutami. “I am privileged to live here, and there are a lot of people around the world who are suffering at the expense of our privileges.”
Qutami said GUPS is not an organization strictly aimed at educating people about Palestinian issues. It also teaches awareness about any group of people who are being treated in an unjust or inhumane manner.
“We are here to educate our student body and our campus about the issues and concerns of the world that they are deprived of by American media and American government,” said Qutami.
GUPS, which is funded by Associated Students Inc. and fundraisers, holds teach-ins, panel discussions, civic involvement, rallies and protests. The organization is dedicated to political and cultural awareness.
The group meets every Monday to have educational meetings, discuss current events, watch films and documentaries, and learn about colonization, oppression and inhumanity on all fronts.
They celebrate Palestinian culture with events such as Palestine Awareness Night and Arab Awareness Week, where members embrace native dance, food and heritage of the Palestinian people.
In addition, many annual events are solemn remembrances of Palestinians who died. The Dier Hassin remembrance on April 9 marks the anniversary of systematic slaughter of more than 100 Palestinian men, women and children in a village that was slated for Israeli takeover, said Qutami.
Another regular event, the Sabra and Shatila Commemoration, honors hundreds of Palestinians killed in an Israeli-sanctioned Lebanese invasion of two refugee camps, according to Qutami and Elqare. GUPS often uses mock funerals for their events, reminding students of Palestine’s long history of death and suffering.
GUPS is governed by two co-presidents, a treasurer, a secretary, and officers of internal and external affairs. Its membership consists of roughly 103 students, 20 of whom are active members who attend most meetings and events.
Elqare said active membership has increased significantly in the last two semesters. The group also maintains an e-mail newsletter, which sends GUPS-related information to about 245 people.
Members said the GUPS acronym stands for “General Union of Palestine Students,” not “Palestinian" students, because members do not have to be Palestinian. Membership comes from the whole gamut of religions and ethnicities.
“There’s a common misconception that you have to be Palestinian or Muslim to be in GUPS, but that’s not the case,” said Elqare.
Elqare and Qutami agree GUPS experiences a different campus atmosphere than other student organizations. Qutami said she has never been to an event without a campus police officer present.
“We don’t see police officers at all the other student events,” said Qutami. “It makes us feel a sort of prejudice from campus administration.”
SF State Department of Public Safety Spokesperson Amalia Borja did not return repeated requests for comment.
Elqare remembered events where trashcans were removed from the event venue, a practice that is widely employed by law enforcement as an anti-terrorist tactic.
“Our office is constantly under attack, receiving racist and inflammatory e-mails as well as death threats,” said Elqare.
This semester, Elqare said, the group received an e-mail with an attached picture of the Sept. 12, 2001 San Francisco Examiner front page featuring the burning twin towers and the newspaper’s banner headline, “Bastards!”
Elqare and Qutami said they attribute these mistreatments to the lack of understanding of issues due to bias fueled by U.S. media and popular opinion.
According to Elqare, group members who wanted to visit their families in Palestine have encountered obstacles in doing so because Israeli customs agents would have photos of GUPS rallies at SF State and GUPS membership information.
“Collectively, these things take a toll on our members, and those who would like to be members,” said Elqare.
GUPS secretary Janan Eadeh said the group is not anti-American, anti-Israel or anti-Jewish.
“We do not advocate any feelings of hate,” said Eadeh. “Our goal is to show students the other side to the story, the side that is often hidden or twisted around to the public. We cannot change the minds of everyone, but we have been successful in telling our story to those who are open to listening.”
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