color photograph of an outdoor protest in support of Palestine. in the center of the frame in the mid-ground, a young person wearing black holds a white poster with handwritten text that reads "Not war, it's colonialism. Not eviction, it's occupation. Not conflict, it's ethnic cleansing. Not complicated, it's genocide."
TAMPA, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 13: Supporters for Palestinians gather in downtown Tampa protesting the Israeli military entering the Gaza Strip during a march called International Day Of Action For Gaza on Oct. 13, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken a hardline pro-Israeli position. The Republican presidential hopeful declared a state of emergency in October amid the State of Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza, allowing the Florida Division of Emergency Management to “bring Floridians home and transport necessary supplies to Israel.” DeSantis chartered a private plane last month to bring back 270 Americans from Israel. Meanwhile, the governor has banned Palestinian student groups from two college campuses in his state and said that the U.S. should not accept any Palestinian refugees. Activists and allies say the Islamophobic rhetoric is stoking Israeli-Palestinian tensions in the state.

Tensions rose in Fort Lauderdale during simultaneous pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protests on Oct. 8, just one day after the attacks in Israel. Aldair Labrada, a pro-Palestine activist, told Prism he was pepper sprayed by police officers and Israeli supporters and had his phone smashed. Video from the event shows hundreds of pro-Israeli protesters and a small group of Palestinian liberation supporters.

“The police were not very helpful in deescalating the situation,” Labrada said. “Not only were we attacked, but we were repeatedly spit on, and we were separated multiple times. [Israeli protesters] were allowed to basically cross the police barrier and keep on attacking us … I feel like that could have been handled better considering it was only four of us.”

Three pro-Palestine activists were arrested at Florida Atlantic University on Oct. 11, and at least four activists were arrested in downtown Miami on Oct. 13. Republican state Rep. Randy Fine of Palm Bay released a letter using dehumanizing language last month urging the governor to action.

“We say Florida is the best place in America for Jews,” wrote Fine, who is Jewish. “It’s time to prove it. Right now. Today. These children must not spend one day more surrounded by these animals.”

Under DeSantis’ leadership, state departments and the Board of Governors sent memos on Oct. 9 conflating pro-Palestinian organizing with antisemitism and “reminding universities, colleges, and law enforcement throughout the state that they have a responsibility to protect the Jewish community from threats and unlawful harassment.”

In his letter, Fine cited House Bill 741, which the Brevard County legislator sponsored and DeSantis signed into law in 2019.

“We are directing our institutions to take immediate, aggressive steps to ensure that all faculty and staff are aware of their legal obligations to ensure that Jewish Floridians are protected during this time,” the memo reads, pointing to HB 741.

Damian Rodriguez, who was also present at the Fort Lauderdale protest, says pro-Israel protesters called him a “dirty monkey” and told him they would kill all Muslims.

“This is not only about Palestine and Israel, but we have the freedom to protest,” Rodriguez said. “I have the freedom to express my opinion and have the freedom to express an opinion about the conflict that’s going on.”

At the University of Miami, a private university, a group of students organized a teach-in about the history of Gaza and Palestine. One student who helped organize it requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. She says she was surprised by the turnout to the event but was called into the dean of students’s office prior to it and was asked to censor the conversation and omit the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

“That’s one of the most popular chants for liberation,” she said. “He went on to tell me that he had been receiving calls from students and parents complaining about the use of this phrase, calling us antisemitic, saying that we’re trying to throw all Jews in the sea, that we’re trying to eradicate all Israelis, which is obviously not what we mean by that phrase whatsoever … I was honestly so shocked that he even met with me to tell me about these complaints … I thought you were on my side.”

The student eventually omitted the phrase from the teach-in to avoid conflict from counter-protesters. 

“It doesn’t diminish the impact and significance of our teach-in,” she said. “I think we still left a really strong message, and we did our job of educating people on the reality of what’s going on. It still was pretty disappointing that they were policing my language because the other side is not being asked to police their language. I could be making the exact same arguments about statements that they’re saying.”

Activists say they want to see an immediate ceasefire and freedom of expression for Palestinian activists.

“What I see right now unfolding is not a simple war between equal states. I see it as a massacre, so I would like a ceasefire in the immediate time,” said Labrada. “I don’t think that people should be put in the line of danger simply for expressing their views.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...