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City Council passes resolution calling for Gaza ceasefire

Left: Ashely Novalis speaks to City Council about the Gaza ceasefire resolution. Right: James Wolman reads a statement from Rabbi Jack Paskoff. (Photos: Tim Stuhldreher)

City Council on Tuesday evening voted 5-1 to approve a resolution (PDF) calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

It calls for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, the expansion of humanitarian aid and the end of “unconditioned” U.S. military aid to Israel. It also affirms Lancaster’s commitment “to combat anti-Palestinian discrimination, antisemitism and Islamophobia in all its forms, and to ensure the dignity, safety and thriving of all its residents.”

The sole “nay” came from City Councilwoman Faith Craig. City Councilwoman Janet Diaz was absent.

The vote followed roughly two hours of public comment, with more than 40 people stepping to the podium to address City Council. About half spoke in favor of the resolution, including representatives of activist groups that have pushed City Council for its adoption since May. Those who spoke against it included numerous representatives of Lancaster’s Jewish community and local synagogues.

The resolution’s sponsor, City Councilman Ahmed Ahmed, described it as “a good faith effort to call for lasting peace” and said it’s intent is “not to harm or hurt anyone.” The situation in Gaza is indeed a Lancaster issue, he said, and local leaders should not shy away from making tough or controversial decisions.

Opponents of the resolution said it would have no effect other than sowing division in the local community, and that City Council has no business opining on a complex international issue half a world away. They said the resolution fails to give due weight to Hamas’ record of inciting violence and rejecting efforts to achieve peace; fails to recognize Hamas’ stated commitment to destroying Israel; and does not affirm Israel’s right to exist.

“Because the proposed resolution does not address the need to protect Israel’s security, respectfully, it is unhelpful toward ensuring peace and is inappropriate for City Council,” said Howard Kelin, board vice president of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim.

He and others acknowledged the suffering in Palestine but laid the blame on Hamas. Several speakers read excerpts from Hamas’ founding charter that call for Islamic hegemony over all of Palestine and denounce compromise.

Hamas’ goal is not peace nor the welfare of Palestinians, but the elimination of “the only homeland for Jews in the world,” said Miriam Baumgartner, president of the Jewish Community Alliance of Lancaster.

In a statement read by James Wolman, Rabbi Jack Paskoff of Shaarai Shomayim said Palestinians’ pain can’t be denied and that he supports a two-state solution, but neither Hamas, Hezbollah nor the Palestinian Authority have shown themselves capable of working in good faith with Israel to achieve it.

Residents line up to speak to City Council about a Gaza ceasefire resolution on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. At the podium is Howard Kelin, representing Congregation Shaarai Shomayim. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Rabbi Elazar Green of Rohr Chabad Jewish Center noted the sharply divided opinions in the room. Everyone filters the news through their own perspective, he said, and every group deserves a voice “in matters that affect them.” In this instance, “Every organized Jewish religious house in Lancaster is asking you to vote ‘no’,” he told City Council.

Supporters of the resolution said Israel is a colonialist occupying force; that it is committing genocide; and that U.S. military aid is enabling the unconscionable murder of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians. By passing the resolution, they said, City Council would add to the political pressure on Israel to cease hostilities and signal to local Muslims and Palestinians that their city supports and welcomes them.

“Our money is funding the weapons, is dropping the bombs” in Gaza, said Heather Davis. “… It is wrong, and Lancaster city needs to say it is wrong.” Jenni Calabrese said punitive Israeli policies — controlling the water supply, blocking trade, annexing territory — have made it impossible for Palestinians to build a functional polity.

Alessandra McAliley, who grew up in post-WWII Germany, said she knows firsthand what it’s like to bear the guilt of a previous generation’s inaction in the face of evil. Speak out against the killing, she urged City Council.

“If you don’t do it for the men, women and children in Gaza, you must do it for our children and our children’s children. … They’re the ones who will have bear guilt and hatred from others for you being on the wrong side of history,” she said.

Abi Haynie represented the Democratic Socialists of America, one of the groups that collaborated on a draft ceasefire resolution submitted to City Council. The final, amended version being voted on “fails to hold Israel accountable for the genocide they’re committing,” she said, but she still urged City Council to vote yes.

Other activists expressed stronger opposition to the revisions. Ashley Novalis of Lancaster Abolition said the resolution “does not center Palestinians” and “panders to Zionist narratives.”

Andy Tran of Students for Justice in Palestine said the organization was withdrawing its support. The resolution’s description of the Oct. 7, 2023, attack that killed more than 1,200 people as being committed by “Hamas terrorists,” he said, “denies Palestinians their legal right to resist,” and attributing subsequent deaths to “hostilities between Israel and Hamas” wrongly shifts blame away from Israel.

“We support Palestinian liberation above all else,” Tran said. “We will not condemn Palestinian resistance of any kind.”

The resolution’s supporters were exuberant at its passage, chanting “Free, free Palestine!” as they exited council chambers.

Before the vote, City Councilman John Hursh said his grandparents were concientious objectors who embraced nonviolence as a way of life. The resolution calls for a cessation of hostilities in Gaza and “a different means” of resolving the conflict there.

“I believe that’s consistent with Lancaster values,” he said.

(Editor’s Note: This article was updated June 28 to correct a reference to Andy Tran’s gender.)