Content warning: This article discusses death and violence and contains mentions of genocide, anti-Palestinian racism, and antisemitism.
On October 7, violence broke out between the Israeli government and Hamas, the militant group currently controlling the Gaza Strip. As of October 16, attacks by Hamas and retaliatory bombings from Israel’s military have caused the deaths of more than 4,100 people — at least 1,400 people in Israel, according to Israeli authorities, and over 2,700 Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Israel placed Gaza under a blockade in 2007, and in the escalating violence, the Israeli government has placed Gaza under siege — leaving many Palestinians trapped without humanitarian aid.
In interviews with The Varsity, Israeli and Palestinian students talked about the pain they have experienced watching the violence unfold from afar. Students expressed their need to grieve and asked others to recognize the civilians suffering from ongoing violence while acknowledging the context of the conflict.
“I know what it’s like to be randomly woken up with bombs flying over your head,” they said. “It’s not an experience most people in Canada have.”
U of T, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU), and various other student groups have released statements on the violence — many of which have received backlash from other members of the U of T community. Some students have criticized U of T’s statement for focusing only on Israeli casualties and not mentioning Palestinian deaths. Meanwhile, U of T administration condemned a statement put out by the UTMSU, claiming that it disregarded the views of Jewish and Israeli students.
The current violence
On the morning of October 7, Hamas launched surprise attacks against Israel with rockets and armed fighters. Hamas militants, who attacked Israeli towns and military bases, took an estimated 150 Israeli civilians and soldiers hostage. Hamas attacked on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, and Simchat Torah, a celebratory holiday that marks the Jewish people receiving the Old Testament.
In the hours after the attacks began, the Israeli government began launching airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. On October 9, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced that he had ordered a complete siege of the area, which Israel has blockaded for the past 16 years. The attacks have allowed Benjamin Netanyahu — Israel’s right-wing prime minister — to consolidate a wartime coalition, and the US has since announced it would send military assistance to Israel. On October 14, the Israeli military announced that it was preparing for “significant ground operations” in Gaza.
On October 9, a spokesperson for Hamas’ military branch warned that the militant group would execute a civilian hostage every time Israeli airstrikes struck Gazan homes.
Although the Israeli government claims that it is targeting sites connected to Hamas, Hamas members live among the Gazan community, and Israel’s attacks have killed many civilians. Israeli officials have told Palestinians in northern Gaza to flee further south, which the United Nations (UN) warned would be impossible “without devastating humanitarian consequences.” So far, Egypt has closed its border to Palestinians, cutting off the Gaza Strip’s only land border not with Israel.
The UN has called on Israel to lift the siege and denounced Israeli officials’ rhetoric. Multiple Israeli officials have made statements that both Jewish and Palestinian commentators have characterized as signalling genocidal intent against Palestinians.
UN officials have estimated that the conflict had displaced more than one million Gazans. The Israeli military’s air strikes have damaged hospitals and other facilities providing waste sanitation and water services in Gaza. The Israeli government’s siege, its refusal to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza until Hamas releases the Israeli hostages, and Egypt’s closed border policy have limited Gazans’ food, water, electricity, and fuel and caused a humanitarian crisis.
A brief history of a complex context
Mohammad Rasoul Kailani, a third-year U of T student specializing in peace, conflict, and justice studies, grew up hearing stories about the Nakba.
The Nakba — which translates to ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic — is how many Palestinians refer to the period around Israel’s declaration as an independent state in 1948, after neighbouring powers rejected UN partition plans that included the existence of Israel alongside an Arab Palestinian state and declared war on Israel. During this period, Israel expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. Kailani wrote to The Varsity that for many Palestinian students like himself, the current war invokes this and other generational traumas.
Over the next few decades, Israeli policy, in conjunction with policies from surrounding states, left many Palestinians officially stateless or trapped in the Gaza Strip — a small piece of land sandwiched between Israel and Egypt — and the West Bank — an area east of Israel currently occupied by the Israeli military.
Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006 and has remained the de facto authority in the absence of further elections. According to Amnesty International, Hamas has carried out human rights abuses against Palestinians, including torture and extrajudicial killings. Hamas has also endorsed and perpetrated attacks against Israeli civilians.
Roey Stav, a second-year student studying conservation biology and environmental ethics with a certificate in sustainability, lived in Israel from ages five to eight and remembers going down into bomb shelters while missiles risked hitting their house in Tel Aviv. They told The Varsity that these memories made watching the current conflict unfold feel more vivid.
“I know what it’s like to be randomly woken up with bombs flying over your head,” they said. “It’s not an experience most people in Canada have.”
The Israeli government has often responded to Hamas attacks with air strikes on Gaza that have killed civilians. The Israeli military has argued that it “strikes military targets exclusively” and minimizes civilian deaths, although Human Rights Watch has determined in previous instances that Israel’s military launched attacks in areas without nearby military targets.
Meanwhile, Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which the state put in place in 2007 after Hamas took control, has limited the opportunities and basic goods available to Gazans — the majority of whom are younger than 24.
“It’s like their lives are valued higher than our lives.”
One Palestinian student, M, requested anonymity because they worried about the repercussions of speaking given instances over the past few days where people in Western countries have lost their jobs for criticizing Israel. They told The Varsity, “[Palestinians in Gaza are] living in such squalid conditions… There’s a lot of rage built up, and inevitably something’s going to happen. It’s just a tragic situation all around.”
The Israeli government has encouraged increasing numbers of Jewish settlers to move to the West Bank, in violation of international law. In the West Bank, checkpoints and roadblocks restrict Palestinians’ movement, and the Israeli government carries out forced evictions and demolishes Palestinian villages.
Multiple human rights organizations, including the Israeli organization B’tselem and Amnesty International, have called the Israeli government’s policies apartheid. In 2022, the Israeli military killed 151 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to a report from Amnesty International.
Students with connections to Israel and Palestine have struggled to deal with the ongoing violence.
M spent the first few years of their life in a refugee camp in Lebanon, which restricts legal rights for Palestinian refugees. Much of their family still lives in the refugee camp, which is located around an hour away from the Israeli border, and their parents were visiting when the war broke out.
“There are some nights where I just can’t sleep. There are times where I’m just sitting down, I’m just staring off into space, [and] my mind [is] just going down rabbit holes of how so many people are suffering and dying,” they said. “I just feel so powerless.”
M has stopped reading the news, and work has helped them to keep their mind off the conflict. They also write to help organize their thoughts. They said that they and their family are “trying to grieve together.”
Kailani wrote to The Varsity that he knows many Palestinian and Arab students who have struggled to focus or engage in academics. In a similar vein, Stav, who has family in Israel, asked for accommodations because they haven’t been able to focus on schoolwork.
“You should be able to put your politics aside to care about the person in front of you who is hurting, and if you cannot, you should simply leave the situation.”
In an email to The Varsity, Toby King — a Jewish mature student studying theatre and performance studies, and a member of Peace Now UofT, an organization dedicated to facilitating conversation between Israeli and Palestinian students — wrote about the difficulty of trying to continue as normal while processing the trauma happening to their community.
“I hate human suffering. I love my Jewish community and family, I love the Palestinian people. I am wracked with grief and anger right now,” they wrote.
Discussing the violence
King recommended that students without a direct relation to the conflict who want to help should prioritize listening to and supporting their peers over having political debates. “You should be able to put your politics aside to care about the person in front of you who is hurting, and if you cannot, you should simply leave the situation,” they wrote.
Kailani wrote that he has appreciated others messaging him with questions and showing that they’re willing to listen to Palestinian experiences. He suggested that people should share “one to two profound posts” that emphasize the toll the conflict is taking on civilians and its history.
Kailani noted that external pressure often makes it difficult for Palestinian students to speak publicly. He wrote that it’s important that Palestinian students can discuss their experiences so that they feel valued and can process what they’re going through.
King also added that, when posting on social media, people should differentiate between the actions of everyday citizens and governments, and refrain from sharing graphic or violent pictures and videos. He added that people should identify the power imbalance between the Israeli government and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip while still denouncing violence against Israeli civilians.
King wrote, “I believe deep in my heart that Palestinian and Jewish liberation is entwined; that one cannot be truly achieved without the other.”
Stav noted similarities between what Israeli and Palestinian civilians are facing. “At the end of the day, it is a fight between extremist groups where civilians pay the cost,” they said. “It’s just horrible that innocent people have to pay for this.”
M noted that being Palestinian makes them relate to those suffering more, but they question why non-Palestinians don’t seem to feel the same compassion for Palestinians. “Why doesn’t anyone else relate to this? Like, aren’t we all human beings? Don’t we all deserve to live?”
U of T’s statement
On October 9, Vice-President International Joseph Wong released a Message to the Community on the War in the Middle East. The statement expressed sadness at the outbreak of war and the “attack on Israel’s civilian population.”
“We share our immense grief for the loss of life and offer our heartfelt condolences to all those suffering in Israel and Palestine and to everyone who has been personally impacted,” wrote Wong. Wong noted that many U of T community members will hold “strong and opposing views” on any conflict and urged people to “engage in respectful dialogue.”
Many deans of divisions including the Munk School, the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, and the Temerty Faculty of Medicine released similar statements.
M told The Varsity that they thought the statement was “relatively balanced” — but noted that it didn’t condemn the Israeli government for bombing Palestinian civilians.
“It’s like their lives are valued higher than our lives,” they said.
UTMSU statement sparks pushback from university administration
On October 10, the UTMSU released a statement on its Instagram, which expressed its “solidarity with all Palestinians and innocent civilians affected by the ongoing conflict in Gaza and around its borders.” The statement focuses on human rights abuses the Israeli government has perpetrated against Palestinians.
“This statement in no means justifies or accepts the killing of innocent people, but rather sheds light on the dehumanization of the Palestinian people,” reads the statement. The statement does not directly mention Israeli casualties and discusses the right of the Palestinian people “to resist an apartheid regime.”
On October 13, UTM Principal and Vice-President Alexandra Gillespie released a statement responding to the UTMSU’s post, which the administration emailed to UTM students. She noted that many students, staff, faculty, alumni, and parents shared with the administration that they felt pain over the UTMSU’s statement. “It is entirely inappropriate for [the UTMSU] to express a position that does not represent the views of its full membership – views that are as diverse as the student body itself,” she wrote.
Gillespie noted that the university administration had communicated its concerns with the UTMSU and asked the union’s executive to “confirm the actions it will take to ensure that no student at UTM is marginalized or discriminated against on the basis of nationality or religion.”
Hillel UofT posted on its Instagram that the UTMSU’s statement demonstrated a “lack of care for not only Jewish but all students affected by the horrible tragedies that have and continue to occur.” The post called for the UTMSU to remove the statement.
In a statement to The Varsity, the UTMSU team wrote that they did not intend to disregard Jewish students’ experiences and “wish to see an end to all violence.” However, they wrote that they wanted to call out the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians, given their responsibility to stand for human rights.
“This week’s events show that everyone is impacted by the occupation to varying degrees,” they wrote. They noted that many Israeli and Jewish people do not support the Israeli government’s actions. “We firmly believe that people can seek justice for Palestinians without conflating it with antisemitism.”
Supports for students, staff, and faculty
In a post online, the Muslim Student Association highlighted free counselling offered online and in person by U of T’s Muslim Chaplaincy. The majority of Palestinians are Muslim, although some practice Christianity or other religions.
On October 19, Hillel UofT will host a support circle for Jewish staff and faculty, and Hillel staff will be available this coming week from Tuesday to Friday for students who want to drop by the Wolfond Centre to talk. Students can contact Hillel Ontario to receive mental health counselling.
U of T and community organizations offer mental health helplines and emergency counselling services to all students. In his October 9 statement, Wong noted that undergraduate students requiring academic support can contact their Faculty of College Registrar, while graduate students should reach out to their department or the School of Graduate Studies. Faculty, staff, and librarians, as well as their partners and children, can access free counselling services for grief and stress through the Employee & Family Assistance Program.
With files from Maeve Ellis.