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Pro-Israel stance by St. Petersburg council draws chants of protest

Pro-Palestine supporters asked council members to repeal a pro-Israel resolution passed last week.
 
A man raises his fist in the air while shouting, “Palestine will be free,” during a public hearing portion of a meeting of the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday night.
A man raises his fist in the air while shouting, “Palestine will be free,” during a public hearing portion of a meeting of the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday night. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 20, 2023|Updated Oct. 20, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — A City Council meeting came to an abrupt end Thursday night after pro-Palestine chants continued following the council chairperson’s warning.

About 60 people showed up to demand a repeal of a resolution the council passed last week supporting the state of Israel and condemning Hamas and Iran. After two dozen speakers, a man refused to give his last name or address, a requirement for public speakers to verify that they live or do business in the city.

When chairperson Brandi Gabbard tried to stop him, he kept on, cursed at her and began a pro-Palestine chant. He was escorted out of the chambers by security.

People fill the chamber during the open-forum portion of a meeting of the City Council. Many shared their displeasure with last week’s 6-1 City Council vote on a resolution supporting Israel and condemning Hamas and Iran that did not include language to support the Palestinian people.
People fill the chamber during the open-forum portion of a meeting of the City Council. Many shared their displeasure with last week’s 6-1 City Council vote on a resolution supporting Israel and condemning Hamas and Iran that did not include language to support the Palestinian people. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Gabbard called a recess to the meeting and reconvened it minutes later. She told the crowd that she wanted to hear all speakers, but if there was another “outburst,” the meeting would be adjourned before council members could speak or take action, if they wanted to.

The very next speaker, at the end of her remarks, said, “Free, free Palestine” and the crowd echoed her. Gabbard ended the meeting after 8 p.m.

The resolution in question was authored by council member Ed Montanari, who also worked to light the Sunshine Skyway in blue and white in support of Israel. He put forward the resolution on Oct. 12, with members of the Jewish community, including former Mayor Rick Kriseman, applauding it.

“We’re going to rock the boat today,” Montanari said at that meeting. “We’re going to stand up today.”

The resolution was approved in a 6-1 vote. Council member Richie Floyd was the sole no vote, and council member John Muhammad was absent.

Council members Richie Floyd and John Muhammad listen to a speaker voice support for Palestine after last week’s 6-1 City Council vote on a resolution supporting Israel and condemning Hamas.
Council members Richie Floyd and John Muhammad listen to a speaker voice support for Palestine after last week’s 6-1 City Council vote on a resolution supporting Israel and condemning Hamas. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Floyd took issue with the inclusion of Iran, saying there has been no link between Iran and Hamas in the current attacks. He said it felt like war drums were being beaten and he became emotional as he shared that he was embarrassed to have previously worked for a defense contractor.

“I’ll support a resolution that’s written with peace and an end to violence in mind, but this resolution is not that,” he said.

Floyd referred reporters Thursday to his previous comments. At the end of Thursday’s meeting, Montanari told reporters, “We stand by the resolution. We stand with Israel.”

On Thursday, people who came to speak identified themselves as Palestinians, Jews, Christians and clergy. They said the language used in the resolution had unbalanced and false rhetoric that inflames Islamophobia.

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“We cannot stand by and allow you to be complicit on behalf of the city and spreading hate,” said Lama Alhasan.

Fatima Syed said many Palestinians condemned Hamas, and that they are not representative of Palestinians, just as hate groups such as the KKK do not represent Americans.

Fatima Syed addresses the City Council, asking members not to judge all Palestinians because of the actions of Hamas.
Fatima Syed addresses the City Council, asking members not to judge all Palestinians because of the actions of Hamas. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“All these young people are going to live with the consequences of the decisions we make today,” she said. “We are just asking you to look at the numbers and to not support further violence and war at this time, having a lot of people dying, families, babies, children on the other side as well.”

“I believe that you had good intentions with this,” said the Rev. Ben Atherton-Zeman of Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg. “You do need to repeal what you passed.”

There was an increased police presence at City Hall.

Montanari told the Tampa Bay Times last week that he wanted to condemn Iran in the resolution because “Iran has been behind terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah for a long time.”

“Nobody wants a wider war, but Israel has to defend itself,” he said.

Council member Ed Montanari, who authored a resolution supporting Israel and condemning Hamas and Iran, is pictured.
Council member Ed Montanari, who authored a resolution supporting Israel and condemning Hamas and Iran, is pictured. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Asked if Montanari would support a wider resolution as floated by Floyd, Montanari said he couldn’t say until he saw the language.

“I wanted our resolution to be very clear where we stood,” he said. “I wanted to speak with a clear voice.”