The rally was part of a global day of protests that saw similar pro-Palestinian marches in cities including London, Rome, Paris, Dublin, Johannesburg and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Demonstrators, who arrived by the busload and streamed from Metro stations, expressed outrage over the ongoing war and U.S. support for Israel’s bombing campaign that has displaced much of the population and left more than 23,000 Gazans dead and approximately 60,000 wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
The rally, organized by the American Muslim Task Force for Palestine and other groups, is the second large protest in support of Gaza in Washington since the Israel-Gaza war began on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants launched an attack on Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostage. A large rally in support of Israel was held in mid-November on the National Mall, where thousands gathered to express their solidarity with Israel, demonstrate their resolve to combat antisemitism, and demand the release of hostages abducted by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack.
As the start of the rally approached, police established a visible presence on nearby blocks, though not at the plaza itself. D.C. police squad cars with their emergency lights flashing lined numerous streets in the area and blocked service roads, while Park Police officers on bikes also lined up. Numerous snowplow trucks were also parked along major roads in the city, but not because of any expected snow. Police often use the trucks to block intersections to keep traffic and marchers separated, or to redirect marchers away from certain areas.
Protesters arrived from near and far to take part in the demonstration.
Merveen Adwan said she was born in Gaza, but fled with her three children after a spate of violence in 2000 and now lives in Montgomery County.
“I’ve been living this life since I was born,” Adwan said. “Israel is committing genocide under the eyes of the whole world, with the aid of the U.S., and the rest of the world accepts that. If there is no justice in Gaza, that means there can be none in the whole world.”
Ahmed Jarrar, founder of Toronto 4 Palestine, and Mahmoud Khalil, founder of Montreal 4 Palestine, said they were interrogated for two hours at the U.S. border Friday but were determined to make the drive to Washington. “The fact there is a call for a march in the U.S. capital is a moral obligation for all of us to come and stand here for justice and call for an immediate cease-fire,” Jarrar said. “We seek the truth, and we’re here.”
The two men brought a friend dressed as Spider-Man, who posed for photos with kids and declined to give his name. “It’s never too late to stop the killing,” he said. “We’re bringing joy to the kids and helping spread messages in an algorithm-friendly way.”
Mariam Khalid, 18, of Chicago, said she came to D.C. wearing two hats: one as an American and another as an Arab woman. As the violence rages on, Khalid said she came to protest her “tax dollars contributing to a genocide.” She bused to D.C., she said, in solidarity.
“I am Moroccan, and my people had to free themselves from France. We are brothers and sisters of Palestine,” Khalid said. “If Morocco can do it, Palestine can do it. If Algeria can do it, Palestine can do it. If Egypt can do it, Palestine can do it.”
Lexia Reyher and Eli Hausman drove through the night from southern Indiana to make their voices heard. “There’s strength in numbers,” Hausman said. “When we all show up, people know we care. When we have an opportunity to come together, we’re going to take it.”
Saturday’s protest comes a day after Israel rejected allegations brought by South Africa at the International Court of Justice that it is committing genocide in Gaza. Israel said the growing death toll in Gaza was an unavoidable consequence of its battle against a militant army that has embedded itself in civilian areas and seeks to repeat the Oct. 7 attacks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the charge, saying “Today, again, we saw an upside-down world, in which the State of Israel is accused of genocide at a time when it is fighting genocide.”
Protesters at the D.C. rally heard from numerous speakers including Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, presidential candidates Cornel West and Jill Stein, Colorado state Rep. Iman Jodeh (D) and family members of people killed in Gaza.
Abed Ajrami, told the crowd that his nephew was paralyzed in a bombing raid and his entire family was killed. “Please stop this madness, stop this genocide,” Ajrami said. “The time to call for a cease-fire is yesterday. We demand an immediate and permanent cease-fire now.”
Josh Paul, a former State Department official who resigned in protest of the Biden administration policy of supporting Israel’s response to the Hamas attack, told the crowd that Biden and members of his Cabinet must speak up and call for an immediate cease-fire and the release of all the hostages held by Hamas as well as those Palestinians unjustly detained by Israel. A speaker representing congressional staffers who support an immediate cease-fire and oppose funding for Israel in the war, also called for a return of all of the hostages held by Hamas.
Mohamad Habehh, director of development for American Muslims for Palestine and lead organizer of Saturday’s event, said organizers picked this weekend to mark nearly 100 days of war and to honor the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.
“We’re past three months of constant killing,” Habehh said. “We feel that it is important for us to come on this holiday weekend in the spirit of MLK when he said that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ that we stand up against the injustice that’s going on in Gaza right now, and stand up against the atrocities that are being supported and being promoted by our government.”
As the rally ended, protesters formed a line and began marching up 14th Street NW, accompanied by a cacophony of drums and chants such as, “Hey hey ho ho, Genocide Joe has got to go.” Their destination was the White House though Biden had left there earlier in the day to spend the weekend at Camp David.
Police closed roads to traffic as the marchers headed west on K Street NW and turned down 16th Street toward the White House. A police helicopter circled overhead, and officers on foot were stationed outside buildings along the route.
D.C. Police Chief Pamela A. Smith said that while the majority of the day’s demonstration remained peaceful, there were “instances of illegal and destructive behavior,” such as things being thrown at officers. “We are supporting our partners at the United States Park Police as they investigate and hold those found responsible accountable for their actions,” Smith said.
At Lafayette Square, across from the White House, chanting and singing continued as most protesters started heading home. A few hundred lingered well after dark, rattling the fence and throwing water bottles outside the White House as police noted spots of graffiti spray-painted across monuments in the park and surveying anything that may have been damaged. At least one person tried to scale the fence as some protesters were trying to unhook a section of it nearby before police quickly refortified the barrier. A short while later, the group began to disperse.
Ellie Silverman and Jasmine Hilton contributed to this report.