Students at the University of South Florida rally in support of the Palestinian people. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

About 100 people gathered in the rain Thursday at the University of South Florida, waving Palestinian flags, wearing keffiyehs and chanting for a free Palestine as they marched across the Tampa campus.

Members of Students for Socialism at USF called the noon rally after Israel declared war in response to deadly attacks from Hamas over the weekend. Protesters spoke and recited the written speeches of others, aiming to bring attention to conditions in Gaza that preceded the Hamas attacks.

University campuses in Florida have become active venues this week as groups with varying views on the Israel-Hamas war seek to be heard, find solace or simply gather with others.

At the University of Tampa on Thursday, the Hillel group for Jewish students offered a room for students “to have a safe space for support and self care while dealing with the atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel.”

The Hillel chapter at UF planned a Shabbat dinner for Israel on Friday as police there and at USF said they would increase their campus presence.

Later on Thursday in Gainesville, the group Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida planned a teach-in as part of a Day of Resistance.

Speakers at the USF rally called on the United States to stop providing aid to Israel and questioned the accuracy of media reports on the Hamas attacks, suggesting some information was propaganda for Israeli forces.

“For over 70 years our people have been oppressed,” said Hadeel Ibrahim, a sophomore and a first-generation Palestinian American student, speaking in an interview. “Families are being murdered. We’re being targeted. We’re being killed … and we’re being perceived as terrorists. Meanwhile, that’s not the case. We’re just being penalized for resisting the genocide of the Israeli military.”

Hadeel Ibrahim, left, Saddle Hijaz, center, and Lina Ismail, right, are pictured during a rally demonstrating support for Palestine at the University of South Florida on Thursday.
Hadeel Ibrahim, left, Saddle Hijaz, center, and Lina Ismail, right, are pictured during a rally demonstrating support for Palestine at the University of South Florida on Thursday. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Several speakers said the conflict should not be thought of as a religious one, and expressed support for the Jewish community.

Dana Barjes and her sister, Noor, are of Palestinian descent and grew up in the United Arab Emirates. They said they had never been to a demonstration for Palestine before and hoped to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinian people.

Dana Barjes encouraged people to research the information they consumed. Noor said news reports often portray the conflict as Palestinians versus Jews, and argued that was not the case.

“It’s the motherland,” Dana Barjes said. “It’s the Holy Land for Muslims, Christians and Jews. So, this is not antisemitic in any way. This is against the killing of children.”

Matthew Hauser, another student, said he was outraged by the protest. He approached the group, talking over a speech, and asked how they felt about Hamas attacking Israelis. Protesters formed a wall, attempting to block him. USF’s dean for students, Danielle McDonald, told him he was disturbing the group.

Hauser said he knows people in Israel right now. He said he attended a Jewish summer camp in North Carolina, where he met Israeli citizens who might be called to fight for the Israel Defense Forces. Multiple people who attended the camp, he said, have died on the front lines.

“Everyone has the right to their own opinions,” Hauser said. “What’s happening now is they’re disrupting the peace of everyone on campus, such as myself. It’s all one-sided. It’s not like they’re willing to have an open conversation or debate. So, honestly, it feels like a threat they’re here.”

Sylvie Feinsmith, executive director of Hillels of the Florida Suncoast, said the group hopes to provide spaces for Jewish students to grieve and be together.

“It’s so important that we show up for one another right now,” she said.

Police search attendees at a security checkpoint before allowing them to enter a teach-in organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida.
Police search attendees at a security checkpoint before allowing them to enter a teach-in organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

At the Gainesville teach-in organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, Omar Ateyah presented slides on the history of Palestine. The fourth-year journalism student and president of Islam on Campus said he had never felt anxious on campus until recently.

He said he fears most for his sister, a freshman who wears a hijab. “That makes her an obvious target for someone who wishes to do harm,” he said.

Ateyah thanked the campus police who provided security, but said that pro-Palestinian activists have historically felt an unjust level of scrutiny, even when advocating for peace. He said he worries the situation will deteriorate as the war in Gaza goes on.

Earlier Thursday, UF student Jagger Leach sat in the recreation room at his Jewish fraternity in Gainesville. It’s typically a space for socializing, but lately it has become a refuge for Jewish students to seek company and comfort, said Leach, a third-year pre-law student and president of the fraternity.

Jagger Leach, a third-year pre-law student at the University of Florida, was one of the organizers of a vigil for Israel on Monday in Turlington Plaza in Gainesville.
Jagger Leach, a third-year pre-law student at the University of Florida, was one of the organizers of a vigil for Israel on Monday in Turlington Plaza in Gainesville. [ IAN HODGSON | Times ]

During an interview, his shoulders tightened up and his knees started jack-hammering on the scuffed vinyl floor.

Leach was one of the organizers of Monday night’s vigil, where more than 1,000 people gathered on Turlington Plaza in support of Israel before a misunderstood plea for help for a fainting student caused a stampede from the jittery crowd, injuring five.

He was standing near the back, lighting candles for attendees.

Leach said he knew there could be trouble. Antisemitic rallies across Florida have been in the news and a gathering of mostly Jewish students seemed like an obvious target for an attack. But he’d pushed those fears away, focusing instead on showing support for his community.

“Everyone knows someone who was drafted or killed or kidnapped,” said Leach, who spent two months in Israel working as a research assistant last summer.

When he heard a bang Monday night, it felt like his worst fears were coming true. “I started running and running and running,” he said. “For the first time, I am running for my life.”

When he stopped, he realized he still had a vigil candle in his hand. “I threw it to the ground and swore,” he said. Overwhelmed with anger, Leach took to social media to figure out what had actually happened.

“I wanted to crumple and cry in a corner,” he said. But there were friends and family to reassure, misinformation and rumors about the event to clear up. “I had responsibilities, and being responsible was very hard in that moment.”

Divya Kumar covers higher education and Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.