Fear grips New Jersey's Palestinian community centre after bomb threat
Staff at a Palestinian community centre in the US state of New Jersey are on high alert after an unidentified caller bombarded the facility with more than 30 phone calls over a 24 hour period, threatening to kill and sexually assault the community workers.
Members of the all-female staff at the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, New Jersey, said they were preparing to begin a new semester of an Arabic programme for children when the threats started.
During one of the calls, the individual, who identified himself as "Jebediah Morris," told the employees that he was located near the centre and would "come over there and beat your f***ing a**".
The caller asked multiple times if the staff were Palestinian, and when asked why that mattered, said: "So I know to come blow you up."
PACC provides cultural, social and educational services to those in need, and in mid-2020 provided meals for more than 400 families during the Covid-19 lockdown.
During one of the calls, the individual accused PACC of being a terrorist organisation and when asked where he received such information, referred to the Israeli government and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Local police responded to the scene and are currently investigating the incident as a potential hate crime, according to local news outlet North Jersey.
Abire Sabbagh, the centre's community engagement coordinator, told Middle East Eye that staff were "shaken up" by the ordeal.
"They are fearful and rightfully so. The centre is for the community. So the attack on the centre is an attack on the community here," Sabbagh said.
"People are upset and angry that someone had the confidence to do this."
As a precautionary measure, the centre hired private security and the police department said on Wednesday it would be conducting patrols every hour for the next 48 hours.
Still, Sabbagh said that PACC will continue on with its programmes and schedule and would not be deterred by the threats.
"We will not tolerate any type of hate crime and any type of threat of intimidation. Every ethnic group, every community should feel safe," Passaic County Sherrif Richard Berdnik said during a press conference on Wednesday, reiterating his department's commitment to protecting the community.
The New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to investigate the incident, and further called on local police to provide extra security over the coming days.
"Propaganda in support of Israeli apartheid and brutality that demonizes Palestinians provides fertile ground for anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim hatred here in America," Maksut said in a statement, adding that it puts both Palestinian and Muslim lives at risk.
"It needs to be condemned and repudiated at every opportunity by elected officials and policymakers.... Calling out anti-Palestinian hatred and Islamophobia is not controversial. New Jersey elected officials must be loud and clear in their condemnation of this violence."
'Death to Arab' mobs must end here and abroad
Sabbagh noted that the targeted threats at the centre are part of a larger problem of Washington's unchallenged support for Israel, which last month launched an offensive on the besieged Gaza Strip that killed at least 248 Palestinians.
"It comes from this country's strong commitment and support to Israel. And of course this person is going to feel confident to say this. And what we are trying to emphasise [is] that what happens abroad affects our communities here," she said.
Sabbagh's comments echo mounting calls for President Joe Biden's administration to condition aid to Israel in what Palestinian activists describe as a massive shift in the way the Palestinian cause is being viewed in the US.
Over the past month, tens of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets across multiple cities to show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza and Palestinians who continue to face forced expulsions from their homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Later on Wednesday, a number of US politicians condemned the vile attacks on the centre.
"I have personally visited the families and volunteers at the @PACCUSA in New Jersey. The youth + cultural programs help the growing Arab community there thrive. It's hard to see this center being violently targeted," Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said on Twitter.
"The 'death to Arab' mobs must be condemned here and abroad", she added, referring to a chant that was yelled by anti-Palestinian activists on the streets of Jerusalem's Old City in April.
"There is no excuse or justification for threatening and terrorising our Palestinian-American neighbors. Diversity & tolerance are quintessential NJ values, and such acts of hate must be universally condemned and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," said New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez.
New Jersey's junior senator, Cory Booker, tweeted a similar message that the "violent and vile threats are unacceptable".
"Anti-Palestinian hate and Islamophobia have no place in our state, our nation - or anywhere," he said.