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City councilmembers respond to pro-Israel backlash

Mark Parker

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Dozens of St. Petersburg residents demanded that the city council repeal a recently passed resolution supporting the state of Israel and condemning Hamas and Iran, at the council’s Oct. 19 meeting.

Public speakers of all faiths asked why local leaders did not include support for innocent Palestinians – both at home and abroad. Many also bemoaned their municipal government’s formal involvement in geopolitical conflicts.

Most of the 24 speakers gave impassioned yet measured comments. The meeting ended abruptly with cursing and pro-Palestinian chants.

Council Chair Brandi Gabbard sent the Catalyst a two-page statement Saturday morning. It began by expressing her staunch support of free speech.

“Those who disrupted last night’s meeting took away the remaining speakers’ ability to exercise their rights,” Gabbard wrote. “They also took away any potential for … action upon their request.

“It is not until we can have dialogue and understanding that we can come together as a community to support each other in our greatest times of difficulty.”

Gabbard offered attendees a warning Thursday night after “Danny,” who refused to give a last name or address, launched into an expletive-filled tirade against her and the council. He led a “free, free Palestine” chant while escorted out of City Hall.

Gabbard called a brief recess, and at least six St. Petersburg Police Department officers poured into council chambers. “I want to hear what everyone who has signed up has to say,” Gabbard said after the break.

“But we will not allow disruption. And if anyone else has an outburst, the meeting will be adjourned.”

The next speaker concluded her speech with another “free, free Palestine” chant as she walked away from the podium. Gabbard adjourned the meeting just after 8 p.m. without another comment.

In her statement, Gabbard noted that many residents expressed concern for their safety and sought protection against anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. “These are the same concerns shared by our Jewish community …,” she added.

St. Petersburg police officers pour into city council chambers as council members exit the dais.

How did we get here?

Gaza is a narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea. The area is home to over two million Palestinians and borders Israel to its east and north and Egypt to its southwest.

Israel ceded most of the 141-square-mile area to the Palestinian National Authority in 2005. The oppressive political and militant Islamist group Hamas assumed complete control over Gaza less than two years later.

Israel declared war on Hamas after militants stormed into the country Oct. 7, killing and capturing about 1,400 Israeli civilians. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry reported Oct. 19 that 3,785 Palestinians were killed in the conflict.

Councilmember Ed Montanari introduced a resolution supporting Israel and condemning Hamas and Iran. While Iran has long supported Hamas, U.S. officials have not found any direct ties between that country and the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks on Israel.

The council passed the resolution 6-1 at its Oct. 12 meeting. Councilmember Richie Floyd voted “no,” and Councilmember John Muhammad was absent.

“We’re going to rock the boat today,” Montanari foreshadowed. “One of the reasons the Holocaust happened is because people didn’t stand up; people looked the other way.”

Floyd called the Hamas attacks “undeniably horrific” and lamented the loss of all innocent lives. He said the city’s proclamation equated to warmongering rather than a call for peace.

Floyd became emotional as he described his previous career as a defense contractor. He said the industry profits from the working class and inflicts global suffering on “poor people” at the expense of U.S. servicemembers.

“I stand for peace at all times … and that 100% means peace for innocent Israelis,” Floyd added. “It means peace for innocent Palestinians as well. And it also means an end to the Gaza siege and the humanitarian blockade.”

Councilmember Gina Driscoll fought through tears as she described a terrorist using an Israeli woman’s cellphone to record and livestream her murder. While she expressed support for free speech, Driscoll said, “This, to me, is not up for debate.”

Fatima Syed was among 24 residents who were able to speak before the meeting ended abruptly to chants of “free, free Palestine.”

Citizen concerns

Dozens of residents felt differently Oct. 19. Many took issue with the resolution’s language and singled out Montanari’s pledge to “rock the boat.”

One said it is never acceptable to “rock the boat” and condemn Israel’s actions. Multiple people noted that a Chicago-area man stabbed a 6-year-old Muslim boy to death two days after the city council passed the resolution.

Fatima Syed, a self-described immigrant and Christian, said Palestinians and people of all faiths have condemned Hamas. “We’re just asking you to … not support further violence and war at this time,” she added.

“All these young people (attendees) are going to live with the consequences you make today,” Syed said. “If we stand on the wrong side of history, how can you live with yourself?”

Rev. Ben Atherton-Zeman, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg, said he was unsure how to respond following the Oct. 7 attacks. He believes council members passed the resolution with good intentions.

“Like me, you wanted to do something,” Atherton-Zeman said. “But you still can, and you can do it better. I think you have the opportunity since we have such articulate and wonderful residents, to learn from them.”

Montanari sent the following statement Saturday: “I firmly stand by our resolution supporting the State of Israel and condemning Hamas for their horrific attacks and call for the immediate release of all hostages.”

Gabbard, however, called it unfortunate that the resolution did not include support for innocent Palestinians or a call for peace. She said in hindsight, she understands how those omissions could cause community concerns.

Gabbard expressed her belief that local leaders could support both Israelis and Palestinians. She said standing up for innocents and admonishing terrorists are not mutually exclusive ideals.

“While I would unlikely vote to repeal the prior resolution, as was the request of many who spoke, I wholeheartedly would support a new resolution that would include … a call for peace and humanitarian aid and refuge be given to the innocent people of Gaza,” Gabbard wrote.

Read her full statement here:

Israel Hamas War Statement (1)

 

 

 

 

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Donna Kostreva

    October 23, 2023at6:22 pm

    I was a post WWII child. I know the history. I asked about the numbers tattooed on the arms of my neighbors. I read, and continue to read about the Holocaust. I support the Israeli people everywhere.Long live Israel!
    If you kill, expect a response. If you side with Hamas in ignorance of facts, you support terrorism. You are on the wrong side of history and truth. There will never be peace in the Middle East unless the killers are exterminated like vermin, nothing less. I thank those on Council who see the truth and have the courage to stand up for truth.
    NEVER AGAIN!!

  2. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    October 23, 2023at3:03 pm

    Our city should remain neutral and pray for peace. Support the idea of the Palestinians and Israel to find peace. I do not believe that ‘Hamas” live in Palestine, I see no proof. The people living in Gaza and the West Bank have been shown to want peace. ‘Hamas’ appear to be outside agitators. We need the Truth!!!!!!!!

  3. Avatar

    Mike

    October 22, 2023at5:04 pm

    So very predictable that the champions of diversity draw the line as soon as it stops serving their upside down broken worldview. Disgusting.

  4. Avatar

    Danny White

    October 22, 2023at11:15 am

    Hamas is categorically a vile, extremist, and soulless terrorist regime. Hamas clearly demonstrated this on October 7th when they launched a series of deadly and dehumanizing attacks upon innocent people in Israel. Hamas is not Palestine. Palestine is not Hamas. Hamas has the economic and political support to control the lives of innocent and pro-Hamas Palestinians. Hamas is responsible for instigating the infliction of death, suffering, and destruction upon the innocent by inciting a war that compelled Israel to respond in kind with the historically age-old, worldwide practice of military intervention. War is never minus collateral damage. The proclamation (if at all a necessary action by City Council in the first place) should include that neither innocent Israeli people nor innocent Palestinians deserve to suffer the tragic indignities of war. Both groups will continue to endure horrific atrocities until leaders of the two warring parties take intentional measures to arrive at diplomatic agreements that affirm they are committed to study war no more. Israel did not start this despicable madness, however, they can stop it with bombs, rockets, tanks, and missiles that do not discriminate between good and bad people in the quest to destroy Hamas. And, while we’re at it, God bless the innocent people of Ukraine and Russia.

  5. Avatar

    james gillespie

    October 22, 2023at6:04 am

    city council was not well prepared for the disagreement from the public. moving into a complex set of foreign issues requires some expertise and much thought. council has no state department for advice. the long term relationship between israel and the palestinians has been bad and wanto killing has occurred on both sides. for lack of better solutions the two state idea still has appeal.

  6. Avatar

    Steve D

    October 21, 2023at6:12 pm

    There is no moral equivalency here. Thank you SP City Council for confronting evil and standing up to terrorists.

  7. Avatar

    RL

    October 21, 2023at4:52 pm

    Taking a stand against terrorism is always the right answer. Terrorism is abhorrent. Hamas is a terrorist group that has done immeasurable harm to Israel and by extension now, to the Palestinians who “elected” Hamas to represent them in 2006. Hamas actions drove this pain to the Palestinians but it doesn’t seem that Hamas cares about that. We are all angered by the violence to innocent people but that anger is aimed directly at Hamas. Supporting Israel and denouncing the terrorists was the right answer; not “the wrong side of history.” Releasing hostages, weeding out the terrorists and identifying their networks is the way through this to avoid further violence in Gaza. Palestinians can help do that and mitigate the violence in Gaza. Palestinians can help achieve peace. Stop focusing on Israel’s justified reactions and acknowledge the horror that was initiated. Recognize the source of terrorism as you rant to end the violence. Ask Palestinians to help.

  8. Avatar

    Mirela S.

    October 21, 2023at3:50 pm

    As Maya Angelou told us, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” The City Council members who voted for the hasty resolution without any regard for the people of Gaza showed us who they are. Their actions and willful dismissal of the violence being committed against Palestinians are very disappointing and on the wrong side of history, and many of us will remember what they chose to do. It’s sad that they think that it’s not possible to show support for both Israelis and Palestinians, as if one group is more deserving than the other. I hope that the City Council members come back and issue a resolution to condemn genocide in Gaza and show support for Palestinian people. It is the right thing to do. They owe it to residents of Palestinian descent, who are going through unimaginable pain.

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