Lawmakers, Actress and Advocates Join White House Hunger Strike for Ceasefire

Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post
Ciara Taylor, center right with microphone, of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, speaks as state lawmakers and other advocates stage a hunger strike in front of the White House to demand a permanent cease-fire in the Israel-Gaza war.

It was day four of not eating, and Sumaya Awad was exhausted. Her eyes were sunken. She’d been repeating herself. In the middle of the night, she kept waking up with severe headaches.

Still, Awad wanted to keep depriving her body of food. She told herself that she had a choice. But the Palestinians in Gaza who have lost access to shelter, food and water in the war, she said, do not.

Awad had decided to join more than 20 others outside the White House throughout this week in a five-day hunger strike to force the Biden administration to demand a permanent cease-fire at a time when Israel and Hamas have agreed to a pause in fighting to allow more aid to enter Gaza and more hostages to be released.

“That is the only way for the violence to stop,” said Awad, 29, of New York City. “It’s just so astonishing that we have to be out here starving in the cold to relay the message that Palestinians deserve to live. And that Palestinians deserve to be grieved, just like any other person.”

President Biden swiftly supported Israel after the Oct. 7 attack on the country by Hamas, when gunmen from the militant group that controls Gaza broke through Israel’s border, killing at least 1,200 and taking others into Gaza as hostages, including some American citizens. During this temporary pause, more than 100 hostages held in the Gaza Strip have been released.

While Awad and seven others were dedicated to fasting for all five days, many others joined for shorter periods of time, including actress Cynthia Nixon. They were joined by fellow Palestinian Americans, congressional representatives such as Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.)., state lawmakers, advocates, and passersby who did not participate, but stopped by to support them. They joined in prayers and songs, held vigils and conversations about the conflict, gave speeches, and painted red teardrops on a banner.

Awad, who is Palestinian, said her grandfather’s family was driven from their home in West Jerusalem into Lebanon in 1948. That year, Israel declared independence and a coalition of Arab states, allied with Palestinian factions, attacked Israeli forces in what became the first of several Arab-Israeli wars. In the end, Israel gained control of an even larger portion of territory, and an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their land in what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic.

Awad said she was compelled to sacrifice her own well-being because of the brutality of the recent Israeli military campaign that has killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, including children, and created a humanitarian disaster in the pursuit of ending Hamas’s rule in Gaza. Awad said she thinks of the babies inside hospitals in Gaza and how her own daughter, now 1 1/2 years old, had to spend time in a neonatal intensive care unit after birth.

“The hunger strike is a way of escalating the importance and the dire and urgent situation and applying shame to this administration, that this is what it’s come to,” she said.

Those enduring this hunger strike criticize the Biden administration’s ongoing support of Israel’s military campaign that has killed more than 13,300 people in Gaza and displaced hundreds of thousands of others.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Nov. 16 shows how views of the war have shifted since its outbreak last month. Forty-six percent of registered voters in the United States approve of Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attack, while 40 percent disapprove. That is a change from Quinnipiac’s Nov. 2 poll showing 50 percent approved and 35 percent disapproved.

These views still vary sharply by partisanship, race and age, with the lowest approval seen among Democrats (27 percent), voters ages 18 to 34 (20 percent) and Black voters (26 percent).

“What is so troubling is that we have a president who ran on a message of restoring America’s moral standing in the world, who has spoken so eloquently about grief and how consuming it can be,” New York State Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani said while fasting on day four of the hunger strike. “And he is blind to this grief. Not only blind, but he is helping to create it.”

Mamdani and others wanted to starve themselves to represent the Palestinians starving in Gaza, in hopes of bringing their message to the U.S. president’s home.

On Thursday morning, more than a dozen people gathered in a circle to share their names and what was keeping their spirit alive in a time of so much death, devastation and fear.

When it was one woman’s turn, she told the group she was Palestinian. And then she started to cry. She grew up in Jerusalem and the West Bank and still has relatives in Israel and childhood and family friends who live in Gaza. Ever since war erupted back home, she has not been able to think of anything else.

The woman, who did not want to be identified for fear of harassment, took a leave from work and has demonstrated in favor of a cease-fire almost every day. She said her parents send daily texts to loved ones asking, “are you alive?” The communication blackouts in Gaza have left her desperately waiting to hear from her friends and imagining the worst.

So when she looked around the circle and saw so many different people – people who had never been to the region she grew up in – care so deeply about her people, she felt more hopeful than she had in a long time.

Through her tears she said, “Thank you.”

Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post
A woman paints a tear in red paint at the hunger strike outside the White House.