Bob Schaible has seen a shift in public opinion in the decade he has been protesting on behalf of Palestinians.

“When I first started doing this … if we got comments, they were calling us anti-Semites,” Schaible said as he and about 15 others handed out pro-Palestinian literature in Congress Square Plaza on Friday night. “I think people now are taking a deeper look.”

But the emotions over the escalating conflict – with Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian political leadership, trading shellfire and Israel launching a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip – are close to the surface.

Natan Khan, a Portland eye surgeon, said he had to stop as he and his two sons biked past the table set up by Schaible and his Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights.

“You can’t go around holding signs saying, ‘Israel started this war,'” said Kahn, who lived in Israel for two years. “They’ve been trying to defend their country.”

Schaible believes there has usually been a pro-Israel slant in America, particularly in Congress, but that the brutal nature of the current fighting, and the lopsided nature of the casualties suffered by Palestinians, may be changing that.

“People are learning more about it and there’s an increasing number of groups like ours out there,” he said.

Schaible tried to give Kahn some literature, but when he wouldn’t take it, Schaible walked away.

Kahn has heard arguments like Schaible’s before, but his experience in Israel suggests the region is more of a religious melting pot than one always on the brink of war. He noted that he helped treat a wounded Palestinian in an ambulance as a young doctor in Israel, while Palestinian protesters outside pelted the vehicle with rocks.

Kahn blames Hamas for the current bloodshed, saying that it started when three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered. The kidnapping was celebrated in the Gaza Strip, he said, but when Israelis retaliated by kidnapping a Palestinian teen, they were caught and jailed. Both sides, he said, need to be held accountable for their actions.

Schaible countered that Israel’s backers always point to the most recent incident as the cause for fighting, rather than looking at the history of the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

During their brief argument, five Portland police officers stood nearby. Schaible asked for police because emotions are raw, even 5,000 miles from the actual fighting.