WASHINGTON − Thousands of Israel supporters gathered Tuesday to stand behind the military campaign against Hamas, demand the immediate release of hostages held in Gaza and condemn an increase in antisemitic incidents across the nation and world.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military reported early Wednesday local time that its troops went into Gaza City's Al Shifa Hospital in an operation targeting Hamas forces. The move came after the Biden administration said for the first time that the U.S. has information Hamas is concealing military operations and hiding hostages under hospitals. Both Hamas and Al Shifa hospital staff deny the allegations.
"We call upon all Hamas terrorists present in the hospital to surrender," the Israeli Defense Forces said on X.
The organizers of the Washington rally, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, described the effort as "an opportunity for all Americans to come together in solidarity with the people of Israel to demonstrate our commitment to America’s most important ally" in the region.
Demonstrators, many clad in the blue and white of the Israeli flag and carrying signs expressing support for the country, streamed onto the National Mall in Washington throughout the day.
Gali Hampel, 18, and her 15-year-old sister Gayah traveled to the rally from Houston. Gali Hampel said she was in Israel on Oct. 7 and knows some of the more than 200 people who have been taken hostage. She described herself as half Israeli with great grandparents who survived the Holocaust and said the events of the last month have strengthened her desire to join the Israel Defense Forces, so she plans to return to Israel for her draft day in April
“I've been raised in a very Zionist home and I’m proud of my Judaism and I want to do something,” Hampel said. “And after seeing this, I need to go and help and contribute to the protection of Israel.”
Hampel proudly wears her Star of David but said her parents and friends on college campuses have expressed concern that displaying Jewish symbols or walking to Hillel and other Jewish organizations could make them targets of antisemitic attacks.
“I think it's a terrifying time especially to be Jewish,” said Hampel, who wants more attention focused on the plight of the 240 hostages still held captive in Gaza.
Biden says hospitals must be protected: Fuel scarcity cripples facilities
Developments in the war:
∎ The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees says its relief efforts will end soon because its fuel storage facility in Gaza is empty. The agency, known as UNRWA, has been trying to provide basic services to more than 600,000 people sheltering in south Gaza amid Israeli military operations and a ban on fuel imports.
∎ Palestinian authorities are calling for a cease-fire to evacuate three dozen newborns and other patients from Gaza City’s Al Shifa Hospital. On Tuesday, a U.N. agency said only one hospital, the Al Ahli, remains operational in the battered north Gaza.
∎ A consortium of Palestinian groups and individuals have asked a federal court in California to enjoin the Biden administration from providing arms, money and diplomatic support to Israel on grounds the administration is aiding in genocide against the civilian population of Gaza.
∎ The Israeli military said it had gained control of the Hamas legislative and government building, the Hamas police headquarters and an engineering facility used for weapons production and development.
∎ About 200,000 people have fled south over the past 10 days due to fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants in northern Gaza, the U.N. aid agency for Palestinian refugees said Tuesday. More than two-thirds of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have left their homes since the war began.
∎ Several hundred demonstrators protested outside the Israeli parliament Tuesday night and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he is unfit for office. The protesters carried signs blaming Netanyahu for the Oct. 7 attack.
Gaza Ministry of Health called for 'urgent' action prior to Israel's operation
Gaza Ministry of Health spokesperson Dr. Ashraf al-Qudra said in a statement Wednesday that the ministry is ready to receive international observers for the medical facilities at Al-Shifa Hospital and called for immediate intervention against the bombings around the hospital.
"We are ready to receive all international institutions at Al-Shifa Complex to ensure the nature of its medical work," al-Qudra said. "We appeal to all countries to take urgent action to save the patients inside the Shifa Complex."
According to al-Qudra, 1,500 medical staff members and about 7,000 displaced people are located inside the hospital.
Israel launches 'targeted operation' in Al-Shifa Hospital
At around the same time Israel said it would allow fuel into Gaza for humanitarian operations, its troops went into Gaza City's Al Shifa Hospital intent on rooting out Hamas forces.
The Israeli military said it was "carrying out a precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the Shifa Hospital, based on intelligence information and an operational necessity.''
Israel has long contended the militant group uses the hospital, the largest in the embattled enclave, and tunnels underneath it for military purposes. The White House said Tuesday it has intelligence to confirm that claim, which Hamas denies.
In recent days Israel Defense Forces have surrounded the medical facility, where thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought refuge. With hundreds of patients and medical personnel inside, Israeli authorities had refrained from entering.
The IDF said in a statement it repeatedly warned Hamas against military uses of the hospital. "Yesterday, the IDF conveyed to the relevant authorities in Gaza once again that all military activities within the hospital must cease within 12 hours,'' the statement said. "Unfortunately, they did not.''
The extent of the IDF operation is not clear, though it said measures would be taken to protect civilians, who have died by the thousands in the reprisal to the brutal Hamas attack on Israeli border towns Oct. 7.
Not long before announcing the incursion into the hospital, Israel defense officials said they had agreed to a U.S. request to let fuel enter Gaza for the first time since that assault.
COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian affairs, said it would allow U.N. trucks to refill at the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border later Wednesday. Lack of fuel and other necessities, along with constant bombardment, have made conditions in Gaza unbearable for many of its 2.3 million residents.
Friend of protester who died after scuffle joins march
Jonathan Oswaks came to the "March for Israel" with a dual purpose – to support Israel and to seek justice for his friend Paul Kessler, who suffered a fatal head injury after a physical scuffle while counter-protesting a pro-Palestinians rally Nov. 5 in a Los Angeles suburb.
Oswaks said he invited his fellow 69-year-old Kessler to the fateful event. "He was the only one that had the spirit and the guts to stand there with me," Oswaks said. "How could I not come here after witnessing the death of a friend?"
Oswaks said he also joined Tuesday's rally as a relative of a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. "I'm hoping to see that Jews around the United States come here and stand together shoulder to shoulder and say never again," he said.
'All of this is anti-Jewish,' counter-protesting rabbi says
Outside the entrance to the march, a line of U.S. Park Police separated more than two dozen counter-protesters from pro-Israel demonstrators who occasionally shouted criticisms as they passed by.
Rabbi Dovid Feldman told USA TODAY from behind the line of protesters that he came from New York to join a multistate group to counter the idea that all Jews support the actions of the Israeli government.
"We are here because of this pro-Israeli rally taking place, insisting they represent all Jews," Feldman said. "Unfortunately, by doing so they are incorporating all Jews into what Israel is doing."
Feldman said the killing of Palestinian civilians constituted a violation of the values of Judaism. "All of this is illegal. All of this is anti-Jewish," he said.
"We are so disturbed by this occupation, this genocide against the Palestinian people in our name," he said. "We are so disturbed when Jews are facing the consequences of all that's being done in our name."
First-time protester prompted to action by hate incidents
Danielle Werchowsky said she has lived in Washington, D.C., for more than 45 years but had never attended a major protest − until Tuesday.
Werchowsky, the mother of a college student and creator of Arlington Parents Against Antisemitism, said a rise in hate incidents in schools spurred her to action. She said even in a progressive city like Arlington, Virginia, she’s felt afraid and avoided wearing anything that would identify her as Jewish on the Metro.“I was really worried about being around a lot of Jews, because we're kind of this target,” she said. “But I just felt like it's really important for people to get out and come together and fight the hate that's out there. It is really frightening, honestly.”
Marcher says US, Israel have kinship dealing with terrorism
Sig Libowitz, 50, said he was surprised but not shocked by the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel. Libowitz, a professor and lawyer who came from Maryland to participate, hopes the rally encourages Americans to support Israel because of a shared experience with terrorism.
“I was not far away when 9/11 happened,” said Libowitz, formerly of New York. “We have to understand, it's a real issue and Israel is fighting on the front lines.”
Libowitz said he hopes Biden and people across parties will support Israel to show “that there's a voice for freedom and for democracy.”
Rallying in support of Israel a family affair
David Komeromski watched his son, Natan Sherwin, weave through the crowd, offering rally-goers buttons and Israeli flags.
Komeromski said he, his wife and their 14-year-old twins flew in Tuesday from Canton, Ohio, where he serves as a rabbi. He and his wife have lived in Israel and have family there. News of the war that began after Hamas' brutal border attacks on Oct. 7 has been “all consuming,” he said.
Komeromski remembers coming to Washington in 1987 for a large demonstration held by the Jewish community ahead of the fall of the Soviet Union. He said it was important for his kids to have a similar, positive experience.
“It's nice to be with a very large group of people with whom we have so much in common,” he said Tuesday. “We're glad to be with kindred spirits to demonstrate in favor of a just peace and an end to the war and terrorism.”
Jewish community 'won't go down easy'
Sydney Kaufman, 33, arrived from New York hours before the start of the full rally and said she wants to show the world Jewish communities won’t be silenced.
“I hope that the government and all of our representatives take notice of us,” Kaufman said.“We're not a quiet group. We don't go down easy, and we're fighting for something that's really important.”
Kaufman said pro-Israel events around New York in recent weeks were well attended. She was turned away from one after it quickly reached capacity.
“We, culturally, historically have been through terrible things,” Kaufman said. “So please ... partner with us and help to stop the evil in the world and prevent terrorist groups from causing more damage.”
March comes as war roars into sixth week
The "March for Israel" rally comes amid heightened global tensions as Israel continues a deadly assault on Gaza. Hamas' killing spree Oct. 7 stunned the world, leaving more than 1,200 dead and more than 240 taken as hostages into Gaza.
The Israeli military has launched an air, sea and ground offensive aimed at eliminating Hamas and seizing the hostages, most of whom the Israeli government says are being held in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath northern Gaza. The war, now in its sixth week, has killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, wounded thousands and left much of northern Gaza's already tenuous infrastructure in ruins, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
On Sunday, more than 100,000 people marched through the streets of Paris to protest a rising tide of antisemitism in France. But pro-Palestinian rallies have been a recurring theme around the world in recent days. On Saturday, a pro-Palestinian march through London drew a crowd estimated by police at 300,000.
Antisemitic incidents rose sharply after war began
The Anti-Defamation League reported an immediate and alarming spike in antisemitic incidents across the U.S. almost immediately after the war began Oct. 7. Preliminary data showed incidents of harassment, vandalism and assault rose by 400% from Oct. 7 to Oct. 23. Of the 312 incidents reported, 190 were "directly linked" to the Hamas-Israel war, the group said.
The Department of Homeland Security designated Tuesday's march a "Level 1" security event, the highest risk assessment, sources told ABC News and CNN. Reached for comment from USA TODAY, the department issued a statement saying it was "coordinating with our federal counterparts to ensure support for partners," including the Park Police, Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police Department.
March organizers urge united front against Hamas
Eric Fingerhut, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, defended the war as a reflection of Israel's determination to eliminate the terrorist threat on its border and restore security to its people.
"Americans have rightly stood by Israel at this critical moment," Fingerhut said. " This is a moment where all of us must stand against terror and defend what the terrorists seek to destroy.”
William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, accused Hamas of brutal tactics that "have no place in a civilized world" and are aimed at undermining the effort for a lasting peace in the Middle East.
"It’s imperative that America sends a resounding message of support to our ally that we stand in solidarity with the victims, hostages and their families," he said. "That we reject extreme anti-Israel rhetoric and sentiment, and that we are united around shared values of peace, justice and freedom."
US sanctions target leaders of Oct. 7 attack
The U.S. State Department announced new sanctions targeting Hamas-affiliated militants and groups in connection with the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Akram al-Ajouri, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's deputy secretary general, was named a "specially designated global terrorist" for leading the group's militant wing, the Al-Quds Brigade. The Treasury Department also designated for sanctions seven individuals and two groups that provided support to or acted on behalf of Hamas.
“Hamas’ actions have caused immense suffering and shown that terrorism does not occur in isolation," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said.
Israel, US at odds over postwar plan for Gaza
The Biden administration is advocating a postwar plan that would allow the Palestinian Authority, which now administers the West Bank, to largely govern Gaza in the absence of Hamas. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to "cave" to global pressure to cede control of Gaza to authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu said his government will retain security control over Gaza after the war.
“There will ... not be a civil authority that educates its children to hate Israel, to kill Israelis, to eliminate the State of Israel," Netanyahu said.
Contributing: Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel war updates: IDF enters Gaza hospital in move against Hamas