Mohammad Hammad owns a hookah lounge in Temple Terrace where people come every day to smoke, talk and watch Middle East news on large screens mostly tuned to Al Jazeera.
“This is a place where we socialize,” said Hammad, a Palestinian American who immigrated to the United States in 2005. “We are all friends, we are like a family.”
But soon after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Hammad said an anti-Palestinian protester along E Fowler Avenue near the University of South Florida alerted him that he knew he owned a hookah lounge and vowed, “You will see!”
The next day, anonymous users posted negative comments on Google about the lounge, the 1948 Cafe. “The kitchen is dirty and smelled like a sewer. Never coming again.” “Kitchen with mice and cockroaches.” “Bad place, not recommended at all. The kitchen is dirty, and the attitude is so bad.”
Hammad, 33, said he scrambled to respond. In less than a day, he got 500 friends and customers to post positive online comments that disputed the fake reviews. Google promptly removed the negative and good reviews.
“If you think leaving a review about my business is going to make me stop supporting my country, you are absolutely wrong,” said Hammad.
More than 1,400 people have been killed in Israel, most of them civilians, and over 200 hostages seized in the initial Hamas assault on Oct. 7. The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza reported that 7,028 Palestinians, including 2,913 minors, have died.
From 6,600 miles away, the conflict is felt intensely among Hammad and other Palestinian-American business owners interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. Amidst concern and uncertainty, they said they worry about what’s to come in a political environment that they describe as growing less tolerant of their small numbers in Florida and dismissive of their homeland in Gaza.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are 10,000 Palestinians in Florida, a 0.05% slice of the state population that’s been thrust into the spotlight by elected leaders. Earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Gaza refugees should be refused entry into the U.S. because they are all antisemitic, an accusation that some say fueled violence against Palestinians here. Last week, DeSantis directed Florida universities to disband campus chapters of a pro-Palestinian group that he said were aligned in support of terrorists. Supporters of the group said the order violated their free speech rights.
Nationwide, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported 774 complaints since Oct. 7, the highest spike in nearly eight years, while the Anti-Defamation League said at least 312 antisemitic incidents have been reported, including harassment, vandalism, and assault.
In Hillsborough County, local police said they are not seeing an increase in crimes directed at either group, according to sheriff’s spokesperson Jessica Lang. Tampa Police spokesperson Verliz Williams said October’s numbers haven’t been updated yet. However, between January and September, there have been zero hate crimes reported, Williams said.
Khalid Zayed, 45, who owns a barber shop in Tampa called Palestine International Barber, said he feels the pain for the people in the Palestinian territories and is grappling with the crisis.
“I’m trying to live my normal life,” he said. “But it is difficult because I am a deep thinker.”
Noor Toukhly-Chehab manages an active Sunday program with more than 20 Palestinian children out of 75, ages 6 to 18. She said that among her children, she’s perceived a mix of emotions amid mounting anti-Muslim sentiment that she blamed on biased media coverage.
“I have witnessed the persistent bullying and discrimination faced by Palestinians escalating just in the past two weeks,” said Toukhly-Chehab, 44. “Our community is now working together on finding counseling resources and wellness sessions to many of our children.”
As the Israel-Hamas war has escalated, hundreds of Palestinian Americans and supporters have marched in the streets of downtown Tampa and Temple Terrace. Among them was Khalil Hammad, 38, a Palestinian American investor. He said that while the conflict isn’t having a major impact on his business, it is on him.
“What we’ve observed takes a substantial toll on us mentally and distracts us from work,” he said. “I know many Palestinian American business owners who are currently trapped in Palestine due to the blockade. The situation remains uncertain and they can’t return to their businesses.”
Ghadir Irshaid, 48, a Palestinian American business owner who sells medical services in Central Florida, said she has been careful not to bring the conflict up at work.
“It is so hard to navigate through the questions at times,” Irshaid said. “I don’t want to lose the business. But in the meantime, I’m a Palestinian.”