At a Brooklyn Mosque, Palestinians Vent Anguish and Find Fellowship

Naim Jawad still remembers the Israeli warplanes in the sky that forced his family to leave their West Bank home. He was 5 years old.

“We ran away from death,” he said.

Now he’s 61, a retired captain in the Correction Department of New York City, watching with anguish as another generation endures a new war, this time in Gaza, where about half the population is under 18.

Mr. Jawad’s family arrived in New York after a brief stint in Jordan, joining a close-knit Arab American community in southwest Brooklyn. He has lived there ever since, raising seven children of his own and serving as vice president of the board of Beit El-Maqdis, a Sunset Park mosque.

Lines of cars double-parked outside the mosque as worshipers arrived for the Friday prayer — the most important service of the week — for the first time since the Israel-Hamas war began last Saturday. Congregants flocked in, seeking a place to pray for loved ones back home and a place to find support.

Empathy for Palestinians has become especially politically fraught in the days since the attack. The one-story building, with arched windows and a minaret, was a place where they could express their anguish to others who understood what they were going through.

The Friday prayers at Beit El-Maqdis Islamic Center were the first since the Israel-Hamas war broke out last Saturday.Credit…Paul Frangipane for The New York Times

Police officers stood guard outside, a reminder of the heightened tensions around the city. Dozens of men filed into the red-carpeted hall, while a small number of women went around the corner to a separate entrance.

The name of Beit El-Maqdis, which sits in an industrial stretch of Sunset Park in Brooklyn, means “holy house” in Arabic and is commonly used to refer to Jerusalem. Its congregation hails from many Arab countries, but the board is entirely Palestinian, Mr. Jawad said.

The imam, Riyadh Ghali, originally from Egypt, said his congregation had been deeply affected by the events of the past week. In his sermon early Friday afternoon, he urged people to attend a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Times Square later that afternoon. He said he planned to go himself, despite widespread condemnation of similar protests in the wake of the Hamas attack.

Imam Riyadh Ghali told congregants in his sermon that, “We have to use that pain and sadness to help your brothers.”Credit…Paul Frangipane for The New York Times

“People have the right to be sad and be in pain when they see that Gaza is being wiped out from Earth like that,” Mr. Ghali said in his sermon, delivered in Arabic, adding: “We have to use that pain and sadness to help your brothers.”

The latest war began after a Hamas attack on Israel killed more than 1,300 Israelis last Saturday. Israel has responded with airstrikes in Gaza that had killed about 1,900 Palestinians as of Friday night.

Mr. Jawad, who speaks in a thick New York accent, said he has not been back home for a long time, because of his frustration with Israeli army checkpoints and the difficulty of moving around. He said he had to endure interrogations each time he landed at the Tel Aviv airport.

“They did that to me all the time, even though they knew when I went back that I was a New York City corrections captain, I was in law enforcement,” he said.

Mr. Jawad criticized the United States for not doing more to help Palestinian Americans, even as it has chartered flights for Israelis to return after many commercial flights were canceled. Mr. Jawad said he sees the events this week as the outcome of decades of injustice.

As the violence escalated this week and Israelis directed Gazans living in the northern half of the territory to evacuate, Mr. Jawad asked, “How can the international community accept that?”

Brooklyn, where he has made his home, has its own kind of international community. Near the mosque is a halal slaughter house, a Chinese sign-making workshop and a Spanish Pentecostal church.

As Mr. Ghali, the imam, ended his sermon he told his congregation, “Be positive in your sadness and don’t face your pain alone.”

Outside Beit El-Maqdis after the service, volunteers organized by the Arab American Association of New York, a nonprofit in Bay Ridge, stood holding signs that labeled them as “community safety marshals” in both English and Arabic. Some were from the group Jews For Racial & Economic Justice.

Sufian Ikhmeis, 57, of Bay Ridge, an engineering professor, returned again for evening prayers. A Jordanian of Palestinian origin who has been in the United States for about 20 years, he was full of trepidation about what might come next. He was worried for relatives in the West Bank, as well as friends in Gaza.

“Palestinians have the right to live, to have their own country,” he said. But of the world politics surrounding the violence, he added: “Of course, it’s not going to lead to a peace. That’s not going to happen.It’s a winner or a loser and the loser is not going to give up, right? So we are in the circle.”

Sabir Hasko contributed reporting.

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