The first thing Israa Alzamli looked at when she woke up on the morning of Oct. 7 was a stream of news photos of a bulldozer breaking through a border fence — and Gazan men standing on the Israeli side.
“Gaza literally broke out of prison,” she texted her fiancé just after 7 a.m.
“I’m so scared,” she wrote moments later, feeling certain of what would come next.
It was still early and the full details of the Oct. 7 attack were not yet clear. But Alzamli, a Harvard Law School student and a naturalized US citizen of Gazan descent, knew Hamas militants had killed Israelis on Israeli soil and she was sure the response would be ferocious.
“I feared that Gaza would not exist by the end of this,” she told the Globe.
She grabbed her laptop and ran out the door of her Somerville apartment in tattered sweat pants and a T-shirt. At the apartment of a Palestinian American friend, she started typing a message.
Alzamli revealed in a series of interviews with the Globe that she was one of the main authors of the Oct. 7 statement signed by more than 30 Harvard student groups that plunged the university into a maelstrom from which it has yet to emerge. It is the first time she has discussed her role in the explosive statement under her own name.
The statement, issued while Israelis were still counting their dead and the Israeli military had begun bombarding the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” It did not criticize the attack, which killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, or mention Hamas, the US-designated terror group that led the onslaught.
“Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum,” it said, leading to widespread denunciations that the statement served as a justification for terrorism. Harvard alumni and politicians called the statement “repugnant” and “depraved,” and demanded that then-Harvard President Claudine Gay distance the university from it.
The statement, published by the Palestine Solidarity Committee, an activist group that Alzamli is part of, set in motion the cascading crises that would eventually lead to Gay’s resignation last month.
In the interviews, Alzamli said the statement’s message was misunderstood. She and her coauthors, who spent hours drafting the statement in a Google document on Oct. 7, intended to warn of the coming retaliation in Gaza. They also sought to place the attack on Israel — which included the murder of families in their homes, widespread sexual violence, a massacre of concertgoers, and the kidnapping of approximately 240 people, including children — in the context of the long, violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Today, Alzamli said she does not wish to publicly condone or condemn the attack, which she called a “horrible tragedy.” Nor does she wish to offer an opinion about Hamas. “I’m not living in Gaza. I’m not there to decide what means of resistance are acceptable,” she said.
But she was willing to share her views on the Palestinian cause — which echo those of many pro-Palestinian students — and her own story, one that has been consumed in recent months by grisly updates from her relatives in Gaza.
Alzamli, 25, was born a stateless refugee in Saudi Arabia to Gazan parents. She grew up in a Chicago suburb, where her parents “instilled in me to remember my land, and to know where I was from,” she said.
She has been, since her grade school years, a pro-Palestinian activist. Since October, she has redoubled her advocacy efforts for what she describes as Palestinian liberation, while grieving the mounting deaths in her family.
More than 90 people from her mother’s extended family, the Al-Shaer clan from southern Gaza, have been killed since Oct. 7, according to the family’s running tally. They are among the more than 27,000 Palestinians killed, according to local officials, by Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza. Many of those killed have been women and children.
Israel, which says it tries to minimize civilian casualties and accuses Hamas of using Gazans as human shields, says around 10,000 of the dead are Hamas militants. The military campaign has provoked a humanitarian crisis including a risk of mass starvation, and displaced nearly the entire population of more than 2 million people.
In the dizzying and devastating months since Oct. 7, Alzamli has felt profound frustration, even rage, at the continued US backing of Israel’s military campaign. At the same time, she has been buoyed by a sense that for the first time in her life, American public opinion is swinging, at least among young people, away from Israel, and that support for the Palestinian cause is gaining momentum.
Alzamli said that even before Oct. 7, the pro-Palestinian movement in the US, and at Harvard, had matured into a more formidable force than she had ever known.
”For the first time ever, I was [thinking]: More people than I’ve ever imagined are really open and willing to learn, and in support of Palestine and seeing Zionism as a problematic idea,” she said, referring to the movement, born in the 19th century, to create and sustain a Jewish state in the Holy Land.
At Harvard, pro-Palestinian advocacy had become embedded in the work and public statements of all manner of student groups, from organizations of medical students to labor organizers. Rallies on the steps of Widener Library attracted scores of students wearing keffiyehs, the traditional Palestinian scarves that have become a symbol of the movement. They protested the dispossession of Palestinians from the lands they lived on before Israel’s founding, and what they described as Israel’s ongoing oppression of Palestinians.
The aftermath of Oct. 7 seemed, at least momentarily, to have halted that momentum, Alzamli said.
Lawmakers, prominent alumni, and former Harvard president Lawrence Summers denounced the statement co-written by Alzamli. Business leaders blacklisted students tied to pro-Palestinian advocacy, vowing not to hire them and even revoking job offers. Trucks circled Harvard Square, and visited some students’ hometowns, emblazoned with photos of students purportedly tied to the statement. Their faces and names, including those of some of Alzamli’s close friends, appeared beneath the words “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we have spent so many years trying to build support and I feel like we lost it all in one swoop,’” Alzamli said.
But one friend, she recalled, told her not to despair. “Oh, just wait,” she recalls the friend saying. “They are going to literally bomb Gaza to pieces. . . . Israel’s response to this is going to be so out of proportion and so egregious that public opinion will slide back around,” the friend said.
The friend’s prediction about public opinion has proved right in many quarters. A recent poll found that the majority of Democrats and independents in the US believe Israel’s military response has gone too far.
Alzamli counts that shift as a victory — one that has come at an unbearable cost.
“Ten people in our family have died,” her mother texted her on the morning of Oct. 8. “[T]he number of people dead has increased to 20 today,” her mother texted a few days later.
Friends dropped off meals, but she often didn’t feel like eating. She had stomach pains that lasted days. She slept sporadically.
On Oct. 16, Alzamli called her mother. “She was so broken that morning,” Alzamli said. That day, the family had learned that an uncle’s house, with the uncle inside, had been turned into a crater. Her uncle had been a teacher, Alzamli said. “He had three kids.”
When asked if Israel might have believed he, or anyone in her family, was a militant or tied to Hamas, she said, “I can tell you that my family are civilians.”
Later that day, she stood on the steps of the Boston Public Library and addressed a crowd of demonstrators filling Copley Square. “As of this morning, more than 50 of my family members are dead,” she said, weeping.
The Globe could not verify an exact number, but social media posts, press reports, and records from the Gaza Health Ministry make clear that many members of the Al-Shaer clan have been killed. The Israeli consulate in Boston declined to answer questions about deaths in that family.
For years, Alzamli had drawn upon the suffering of Palestinians in an attempt to open Americans’ eyes to the reality of life in Gaza and the West Bank. She has been speaking about life in the Palestinian territories and “showing pictures of blown up babies since I was in fourth grade,” she said.
But it had never been like this. Now she was channeling tragic news from her family’s group chats into her campaign for Palestinian liberation, and she was conflicted. “It feels gross to do this. But it also feels like desperation,” she said. “What else can we do to show you how in pain we are and hope that you’ll listen?”
It also felt necessary to her. As an American citizen and a Harvard student, she felt she was in an unusually powerful position to fix Americans’ attention on Gaza’s dead, and to advance the Palestinian cause.
On campus, there was a groundswell of support. Hundreds attended rallies calling for a cease-fire.
“I feel really lucky that there’s a community here of people that have been really supporting me,” Alzamli said.
But there was another side.
Israeli students had been horrified when the Oct. 7 statement was published. It struck them as a justification, even an endorsement, of the attack that came as they were still trying to account for missing friends and relatives.
Their horror, and that of many other Jewish students, grew in the following days and weeks as some of their classmates spoke approvingly of the Hamas attack. A Harvard undergraduate called the attack “a revolutionary breakthrough” on social media. Another said at an Oct. 14 rally that the Hamas militants were not terrorists and that a student group she led was “in full support of the Palestine resistance. . .”
At campus rallies, some pro-Palestinian student demonstrators chanted controversial slogans, such as “Globalize the intifada,” which some students, especially Jewish students, heard as an incitement to violence against Jews.
Intifada is a reference to Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation. The more recent intifada, in the early 2000s, included suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians and deadly Israeli responses.
Some pro-Palestinian activists say intifada chants are a call for Palestinian liberation, not for violence against civilians.
Charlie Covit, a Jewish student who said campus antisemitism surged after Oct. 7, wondered if his classmates understood what they were saying. “Do you know the defining event of the intifada was when 30 people at a Passover meal were blown up?” he said.
At a now-infamous congressional hearing in December, former Harvard president Gay was asked repeatedly about the controversial protest slogans. Eventually, Representative Elise Stefanik asked if “calling for the genocide of Jews” violated Harvard’s rules. Gay said it “depends on the context,” prompting denunciations and calls for her resignation.
Alzamli found the speech controversies maddening. “I don’t know if my entire family will be wiped out,” she said. “And people are over here debating if ‘from the river to the sea’ ” — another contested slogan — “is a call to genocide.”
In the face of harassment and scrutiny of her movement, she retreated into the comfort of like-minded friends. “If you’re not willing to [act] on what I believe is a moral duty to speak up about this,” she said, “I [don’t] have it in me to be around those kinds of people.”
During the summers of her childhood, Alzamli and her family often traveled to Cairo, a place where she could see her relatives from Gaza, which is difficult to visit and where she has never been.
Alzamli remembers those summers as some of the happiest of her childhood. She felt like she belonged there — surrounded by Arabic speakers and other hijab-wearing girls — in a way she never did in the post-9/11 American Midwest.
She felt an intense nostalgia during those summers for the extended family she had never known and for her parents’ homeland, which always felt just beyond reach. The war has only compounded those feelings. Swaths of her family’s hometowns, Rafah and Khan Younis, have been obliterated. The vast majority of her dead relatives are people she never met.
Her mother remains in touch, whenever possible, with her surviving cousins and aunts in Gaza. Many of her mother’s relatives have gathered in a single house in Rafah, Alzamli said, where the bombing campaign has recently ratcheted up. She is terrified that it will be hit.
“It’s impossible not to think that everyone is going to die,” she said.
For Alzamli, like many Palestinians, her people’s ordeal dates back to the time of Israel’s founding in 1948.
After the Nazis and their collaborators killed 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, convincing many Jews that only a Jewish state could protect them, the United Nations voted to divide British-controlled Palestine between Arabs and Jews. The partition vote sparked war, after Arab states and the Palestinian leadership rejected the plan. When Israel declared statehood, surrounding Arab countries invaded. The fighting, as well as expulsions of Palestinians by Jewish forces, provoked a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. They left territory they had long known as their own — but that was suddenly the footprint of modern-day Israel — an event known as the Nakba, the “catastrophe” in Arabic.
Before Oct. 7, Gaza was controlled by Hamas and was blockaded by Israel and Egypt. (Israel removed its last settlement in Gaza in 2005.) In the West Bank, many Palestinians face arbitrary search and seizure and must contend with Israeli military checkpoints that impede their movement. They are subjected to a military justice system, while Israeli residents accused of wrongdoing are tried in civil courts. The expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has also displaced Palestinians, and sparked violent conflicts between Israeli settlers, Israeli security forces, and Palestinian residents and militants.
For decades, Hamas and other militant groups have launched attacks at Israel, including rocket barrages and suicide bombings, from Gaza and the West Bank that have taken many lives. Israel has responded with airstrikes and other deadly military operations. The country has maintained that it must blockade Gaza and control security in the West Bank to protect itself.
Alzamli’s long-term goal in her activism, she said, is “to end the occupation.”
To her, that means, “equal rights for everybody on that land, the walls come down, the right to return for refugees,” that is, to return to lands from which Palestinians fled or were expelled.
She does not claim to have an answer for precisely how to bring about those objectives. “Whether it’s one state, whether it’s two states, that all can be figured out later,” she said.
Alzamli said “international pressure” is a key lever. “Living in America, you are a citizen of this country’s number one ally, number one supporter, number one financial benefactor,” she said of Israel. “You have the power to make this a voting issue.”
On that front, Alzamli counts some victories from the past four months.
In January, 11 US senators, including Elizabeth Warren, voted for a resolution introduced by Bernie Sanders to make the State Department produce a report about alleged human rights violations by Israel in Gaza. The bill went nowhere, which Alzamli considers a “disgrace.”
“But . . . you can’t have this defeatist mentality,” she said. “The fact that this bill was introduced and 11 senators voted for it: There are changes.”
But even as she has counted some victories, her movement is unpopular, even reviled in some quarters, and dogged by allegations of extremism and antisemitism within its ranks.
Fairly or not, the statement she co-wrote on Oct. 7 contributed to that dynamic. The ghastly details of the Hamas-led attack that day have only become clearer since. Alzamli knows atrocities were committed.
She viewed her statement as exploring “the circumstances that lead people to do certain things that are horrific.”
“Isn’t that what we always do . . . in progressive movements in the US?” she said.