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McLean students host Palestine solidarity walkout

Pro-Palestine students gather for humanitarian protest

McLean students participated in a walkout organized by pro-Palestine students during Highlander Time on Oct. 27. The protest was initiated to call for a ceasefire and an end to the deaths of innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip in the Middle East.

“We can’t sit in silence and just watch people die on the other side of the world,” said sophomore Holly Raheb, one of the organizers of the walkout. “Knowing that kids our age don’t get to live their life to the fullest in Palestine demanded [me] to talk about it.”

On Oct. 7, Palestinian militant group Hamas infiltrated Israeli bases and towns, breaking the Israeli blockade along the Gaza Strip. In the weeks since, record civilian casualties have been reported. According to Israeli officials and the Gaza Health Ministry, at least 1,400 Israelis and 7,300 Palestinians have been killed.

The protest was organized by a student-led committee and was promoted through multiple student-led clubs at McLean, including the Muslim Student Association (MSA), Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) and Black Student Union (BSU).

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It was amazing to see the diversity in the crowd, all chanting together for the same cause.”

— sophomore Holly Raheb

“For me, even before Oct. 7, this has always been a huge issue I’ve deeply cared about,” said junior Leena, one of the organizers who has chosen to remain anonymous under the alias. “After what happened three weeks ago, I just felt that I really needed to do something … to bring the Palestinian community together [in these times].”

Leena requested to remain anonymous after facing backlash when quoted in The Highlander’s online article about the current conflict.

Around 150 students gathered at the front of the school upon the beginning of the demonstration. Because the walkout was hosted during Highlander Time Flex – when McLean students are able to go anywhere on campus and spend free time – the student organizers had some reservations about how many students would show up.

“We reached a lot more people than we thought we would… there was so much relief flowing through my body knowing that people [are] actually here to make a change,” Raheb said. “It was amazing to see the diversity in the crowd, all chanting together for the same cause.”

McLean’s administration had concerns that the high student turnout could cause conflict due to the highly contentious nature of the topic. One student, sophomore Samuel Cohen, was present at the walkout holding the Israeli flag.

“On both sides, there are humanitarian issues, but the pro-Palestine argument is inherently missing some core points and it is posed unfairly against Israelis,” Cohen said. “I believe in a ceasefire too, just after Israeli hostages have been released by Hamas.”

During the walkout, senior and MSA vice president Mo Anam approached Cohen for a civil discussion.

“I respected him for coming out and standing up for what he believes in, because that’s what we were doing ourselves,” Anam said. “Our conversation reminded me that the power of dialogue is so important because we realized both of us just wanted a ceasefire.”

Despite the administration’s concerns, the walkout was peaceful and even garnered support from bypassers.

“After the protest, there were two or three people from the neighborhood outside the school, standing by the door to tell us that they heard our chants from outside and it was beautiful,” Raheb said. “It reached more people than the student crowd itself and these people went out of their way to come to the school and show support.”

As the students marched around the school, they encountered three FCPS trucks driving towards the back entrance. While the staff paused the procession to prevent any collisions, the truck drivers passed by with honks and raised fists to express solidarity.

“It was amazing to know that the impact of our walkout was beyond the students who were walking out with us,” said junior Layla Carter, a member of the BSU. “When they showed their support, it was really all we needed, because we in the U.S. can become a voice for Palestinians when they cannot use their own.”

On Oct. 25, two days before the walkout, Principal Ellen Reilly sent out an email to the McLean community regarding the protest after concerned parents reached out to the school administration. The brief email included information on how the school would ensure a safe and peaceful event, clarifying that FCPS does not oppose nor endorse any side.

“FCPS respects the rights of our students to engage in peaceful protest … as long as it is done respectfully, does not interfere with the rights of others and does not disrupt learning in the school,” Reilly said in the email. “While respecting these rights, we must also ensure our school is a safe space for every student. FCPS denounces all acts of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and hatred in any form.”

Some in the McLean community objected that the walkout would promote antisemitism. In response, the McLean administration requested the walkout planning committee to remove the words ‘apartheid’ and ‘siege’ from posters.

“Our flyers had no mention of Israel or Jews so we were so shocked when we were being targeted for antisemitism. I had to repost our flyer three or four times,” Raheb said. “Because of the limitations, we had various meetings with staff about things we’re not allowed to do or say. We had to get confirmation from the superintendent, but the word ‘apartheid’ is directly used by human rights experts as the official word.”

The voices of McLean’s pro-Palestine students have been echoed by numerous schools across Fairfax County, as nine other high schools initiated similar walkouts throughout the week.

Many protestors held self-made signs calling for an end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories, some of them created at the planning meeting hosted by the MSA and BSU on Oct. 26. Through both posters and chants, students were able to call their peers to attention.

“Especially in the McLean-Tysons area, where we have such a diverse community, you are able to understand different cultures on a personal level,” Anam said. “In recent years at McLean High School, we’ve had multiple protests. It is our way of showing that we as a community will always fight for change.”

This story was originally published on The Highlander on October 27, 2023.