APTOPIX Israel Palestinians

Former Palestinian prisoners who were released by the Israeli authorities wave Palestinian and Hamas flags Friday upon their arrival in the West Bank town of Beitunia. Nasser Nasser/Associated Press

Mainers with a personal connection to the Israel-Hamas war shared a moment of relief Friday as the two sides swapped dozens of political prisoners and hostages on the first day of a four-day pause in the fighting.

But they fear what’s waiting on the other side and many are still reckoning with the atrocities they watched unfold against Israeli and Palestinian civilians since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

Hamas released 24 hostages on Friday, while Israel freed 39 Palestinians. It’s the first stage of a deal intended to free roughly 200 people between the two sides.

Jordan Cohen, of Camden, was with his family Friday morning, watching on TV as the first few hostages were released and returned to Israel.

He is a dual Israeli-American citizen with relatives in Israel, many of whom have spent the last couple of months hosting and taking care of evacuees.

“I think all of it’s a miracle,” Cohen said of the four-day cease-fire. “What happened was traumatizing, and this is still traumatic. … But to have any crack of light in the darkness that’s taken over our lives, it’s just a miracle. And I have gratitude for it.”


Fateh Azzam, a Palestinian-American in Georgetown with decades of human rights experience, said the cease-fire is positive, but reminds people that it’s temporary.

“Any pause in the killing right now is a good thing. But I don’t want it to be misunderstood for what it is,” Azzam said. “You need to stop the fighting.”

Israel has said it’s willing to extend the cease-fire if more hostages are released. Otherwise, Israel plans to resume its massive offensive next week. The Israeli assault has killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza government. A majority of the civilians who have died on both sides are women and children.


While Mainers with ties to Israel and Gaza are finding solace in this brief sliver of peace, they continue to feel the war’s effects on them locally.

Cohen has taken to urging local leaders to take a stand against the increased antisemitism he’s seen lately, especially since the war began. He has met with state lawmakers, asking them to pass legislation banning neo-Nazi camps and face coverings at protests.


Israel Palestinians

People react as they hear the news of the release of 13 Israeli hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza strip, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Friday. Friday marks the start of a four-day cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war during which Hamas pledged to release 50 hostages in exchange for 150 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

He also organized an outdoor vigil in Camden a week after the Hamas attack. The event was well-attended, he said but only included a few people from the Jewish community, a majority of whom were afraid for their safety.

While he was at a solidarity vigil for Israel in downtown Portland, passersby shouted antisemitic comments, Cohen said, condemning Israel and Jews. He said pro-Palestinian protesters also have made alarming remarks condoning the Hamas attack.

“They’re not just expressions of love for the Palestinian people, they’ve been expressions of hate toward Jewish people and pro-Israel people,” Cohen said.

But Abby Fuller, who chairs the nonprofit Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights, said her group – which organizes a majority of these demonstrations – condemns violence and is focused only on the Israeli government, not Jewish people and their presence in Israel.

“The criticism we’re all making is very clearly about the Israeli government,” Fuller said. “There’s been no hate to Jewish people on our side.”

The group has been around for almost 20 years, working to increase awareness of the displacement of Palestinian people and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, Fuller said.


As the Israeli government retaliated following the Hamas attack, Fuller said more Mainers became interested in supporting Palestinian rights. The group’s mailing list has surged and it is seeing more participants in its regular protests in downtown Portland.

With the war, the group has particularly focused on protests outside the offices of U.S. Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree, urging them to sign onto a resolution in Congress seeking a permanent cease-fire.

Earlier this month, at least seven protesters were arrested outside Golden’s office as they urged him to support a cease-fire, according to Maine Public. Protesters said they were upset Golden was one of 22 Democrats who voted to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, who introduced the resolution for a cease-fire.

Golden released no statements at the time and his office did not respond to an email about the arrests Friday afternoon.

Pingree, who did not vote to censure Tlaib, released a statement on Monday praising the Israeli cabinet for its decision to enter a temporary cease-fire in exchange for the release of 50 Israeli hostages. Her office did not respond to a request to discuss a permanent cease-fire Friday afternoon.

Azzam has attended and spoken at some of the pro-Palestine events. He’s also writing his elected officials, urging them to support a permanent cease-fire.


“This is not about Jews, Arabs and Muslims. This is not about antisemitism,” Azzam said. “It’s about political power and the right to self-determine in your land. And if there are disputes about whose land it belongs to, then solve that dispute. But you don’t do it by destroying an entire people.”


Rabbi Andy Bachman, who recently moved to Maine and led congregations for decades in New York, said Friday that he is grateful for the cease-fire and that it “allows everyone to take a breath.”

He hopes it will allow peacemakers to intervene and work on a path forward without violence.

Israel Palestinians

A woman cycles Friday in Tel Aviv, Israel, next to a billboard calling for the return of about 240 hostages who were abducted during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. Ohad Zwigenberg/Associated Press

Locally, he also wants Mainers following the conflict to take a beat and reflect. Bachman recently led a discussion at Bowdoin College about the Israel-Hamas war.

Several pro-Palestine students stayed afterward to discuss and even argue with him. Bachman said he wants to see more engagement like this.


“Expand your horizon of this gut-wrenching conflict,” he said. “To wade through the emotion and the psychological impact, I would say trauma, of witnessing these images requires a lot of fortitude … but it’s necessary.”

He’s less fond of the simplified statements he hears chanted during street protests and written on signs.

“The complexity of all of this stuff, you can’t fit all of this on a poster and hold it up on Congress Street, at Monument Square,” Bachman said. “We’re in this horrible bloody conflict, I believe, because of maximalist positions that can never be achieved, but what they do is bring horrible violence upon millions of innocent people.”

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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