Colombo, Sri Lanka – On most days, the Dolci Falasteen restaurant in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo is quiet.
Located on a main road in a busy neighbourhood, the eatery is an escape from the busy mood of the city. Traditional Arabic lanterns cast a warm glow over its cosy dining area.
But on a Sunday afternoon, seven weeks after Israel launched its ruthless assault on Gaza, the restaurant that specialises in Palestinian cuisine is bustling with young entrepreneurs. They have united for a common cause: to raise funds for Palestine.
Aisha Altaf, a 24-year-old entrepreneur who runs a cosmetics business, is behind the fundraiser. The LURE Foundation, which she established recently, had offered other businesses a chance to put up stalls at the fundraiser and donate at least 10 percent of their proceeds to Gaza. Most vendors donated their whole income.
“After constantly seeing graphic content of what’s happening to the people in Gaza, I felt immense guilt for having the most basic things like sleeping on a bed, having water, and hot meals,” Altaf told Al Jazeera.
“This is most definitely a genocide, and whoever cannot see it is simply choosing to ignore all the facts.”
‘We feel helpless’
LURE Foundation has partnered with the Africa Muslims Agency, a humanitarian organisation set up in 1987, that will use the money to supply aid to Gaza. So far, they have received more than 2.1 million Sri Lankan rupees ($6,400) in donations and from the fundraiser.
“We plan to provide hot meals for the helpless victims. As winter is approaching, we are also providing winter jackets for children, especially those that are displaced and sleeping on the street,” Altaf said.
At the event, 14-year-old Mumina Hilmy, clad in a black cloak with red and green stripes, is running her own stall with her mother’s help. She is selling bracelets and key tags that she crocheted with the colours of the Palestinian flag.
“I made these during my free time and recess at school,” Hilmy told Al Jazeera.
Miquelaa Fernando, 25, who bought a bracelet, said she is happy to support a bigger cause.
“We feel helpless when so many bigger organisations and governments haven’t done anything to help other than the ceasefire [in Gaza]. By coming here, I felt this is something I could do to show some form of support,” she said.
For entrepreneurs and visitors, the fundraiser — cosmetics, food, perfumes, toys and stationery were on sale — was a symbol of solidarity with Palestine.
Sajida Shabir, a 26-year-old restaurateur, sold home-made food like chicken rolls, cookies, chilli paste and mayonnaise under her brand Hungryislander’s Kitchen. Her mother and sister were there to support her.
“I’ve donated through other platforms earlier. But rather than just donating money, I’m putting in my effort here through sales. So it makes me feel good about it,” she said.
Umar Farook, 56, who visited the stalls, said he would support Palestine whenever he could.
“Palestinians have the right to live in their own country. The international community must make sure that happens. Palestine will win,” he said.
Sri Lanka’s stance on the conflict
When Sri Lanka was under British rule, the then-Chief Justice Sir Alexander Johnston had proposed to establish a Jewish settlement in the island, then known as Ceylon. But the proposal was not successful, according to a paper published by the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, an Israeli think tank, in 2021.
Since gaining independence in 1948, Sri Lanka established relations with both Israel and Palestine and has called for a two-state solution.
For three decades, Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist nation, was at war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that fought for a separate state for Tamils in the northern and eastern parts of the country.
Uditha Devapriya, an international relations analyst, said Sinhalese nationalist groups who believe Sri Lanka is the chosen land for Buddhists have been sympathetic with the similar notions that Zionism has held with regards to Israel as the promised land for Jews.
But these groups, which have opposed international calls to probe alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, see double standards in Western powers allowing Israel to get away with the mass killings in Gaza.
“Now Sinhala nationalists are using the Gaza Strip tragedy to show the hypocrisy of the Western powers,” Devapriya, chief analyst of international relations at Colombo-based think tank Factum, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a perfect opportunity for them to reflect on how the West treated Sri Lanka during the war while showing favourable treatment to Israel.”
For several years, countries such as the United States that staunchly support Israel have backed United Nations resolutions calling for probes into alleged war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s war.
Earlier this month, President Ranil Wickremesinghe accused the West of double standards. “What applies to us must also apply in Gaza,” he had said.
Meanwhile, many Sri Lankan Tamils see parallels between Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza — in which nearly 15,000 people have been killed — and the final stages of the civil war during which the Sri Lankan government allegedly committed war crimes. The government denies the claims.
“The aggression on Gaza should be seen as similar to the killing of Tamils at Mullivaikal [where the final battle of the war occurred],” Sri Prakas, joint secretary for the Mass Movement for Social Justice said in a statement.
Protests in solidarity with Palestine
Dozens of demonstrations have taken place in Sri Lanka opposing Israel’s Gaza assault, which followed an attack by Hamas fighters on southern Israel on October 7, in which 1,200 people were killed. At protests across Sri Lanka, people have marched with placards saying “Stop the Genocide” and “End Israeli Apartheid”.
A continuing truce has seen dozens of Palestinian prisoners and Israeli captives released over the past six days, as Palestinians in Gaza return to their bombed homes and devastated cities.
In the northern city of Jaffna, once a focal point of Sri Lanka’s civil war, a group of Tamils held a protest calling for an end to the attacks.
Pro-Palestinian protesters were also there in their hundreds at a demonstration in Colombo, attended by leaders of the Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu faiths.
Father Lionel Peiris, who was part of a fact-finding mission sent by the World Council of Churches to Palestine during the first Intifada in the late 1980s, also protested.
“When people are being slaughtered, and when their land and houses are being taken, look at it as humans. Feel sadness. Feel sorrow and anger. You can’t let that happen,” Peiris told Al Jazeera.
“[Benjamin] Netanyahu’s government has completely dehumanised Palestinians. This can’t go on.”
Tassy Dahlan, an educational consultant, attended at least five protests in support of Palestine, including ones opposite the US embassy and the UN Compound in Colombo.
“There are Muslim, Christian and Jewish children who have been killed. Their lives have been snapped away because of the political agendas of some countries who are turning a blind eye to humanity,” Dahlan told Al Jazeera.
People have laid flowers, lit candles, tied ribbons and posted notes of solidarity at a memorial at the Palestine embassy in Colombo.
Meanwhile, Melani Gunathilaka, a civil rights activist, has been battling disinformation about the conflict on social media.
“Groups with money and power dictate the narratives. That’s why I try to share verified information, and read the research done on these topics by experts, to set the record straight,” Gunathilaka told Al Jazeera.
Back at the Dolci Falasteen restaurant, as the fundraiser drew to a close, Altaf admitted feeling a “little less helpless” – but then also expressed hope.
“Let us embrace unity, collaboration and empathy. Together, we have the power to build a better future for all. Every action we take has a ripple effect, impacting lives beyond our own borders,” she said.