Ocala City Council protests continue, citizens demand support for ceasefire in Gaza

Public comment to be moved to end of meetings as city council refuses to vote on resolution.

Former Marion County Commissioner Barbara Fitos speaks during the public comment portion of the March 19 Ocala City Council meeting asking councilmembers to “search their hearts” for why they voted not to pursue a resolution in support of ceasefire in Gaza [Granicus].

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Posted April 3, 2024 | By Caroline Brauchler

The Ocala City Council voted to move the public comment section to the end of each council meeting after the fourth meeting during which numerous citizens have come forward to demand that the council pass a resolution to support a ceasefire in Gaza.

Since the escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict that occurred following a Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, citizens have pleaded for the city council to approve a resolution in favor of ceasefire between the two entities.

The attack by Hamas left about 1,200 citizens of Israel dead, according to Tel Aviv. In retaliation, the Israel Defense Force has killed over 32,000 Palestinian citizens, the majority of whom have been women and children, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been ongoing for the past 75 years, due to both entities claiming territory of the same region of land in the eastern Mediterranean. Palestine has been controlled by the Hamas militant group since 2007.

Local governments nationwide have approved resolutions supporting ceasefire in the hopes that state and federal legislators will also support the notion of ceasefire. Over 70 U.S. cities have passed resolutions to this effect, including Chicago and Seattle, according to Reuters.

On March 25, the United States abstained from voting when the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, according to the UN.

After the public comment at the March 5 meeting, City Attorney William Sexton asked the council members if they would like to place a resolution in support of ceasefire on a future meeting agenda for a vote. Councilmembers Jim Hilty and Ire Bethea were in favor of a resolution, while Councilmembers Kristen Dryer, Jay Musleh, Barry Mansfield and Mayor Ben Marciano were not in favor a resolution.

The Ocala City Council meeting on April 2 was the fourth meeting where citizens of varying opinions have used the public comment portion of the meeting to demand the council’s action.

The comments have lasted for upwards of two hours in some meetings. Some spoke in favor of ceasefire, calling for peace for both parties. Others spoke against ceasefire, saying Israel has a right to defend itself and its territory. Others condemned Israel’s retaliation against the Palestinian people, saying the violence being committed in Gaza against the Palestinian people is a genocide.

Many of the speakers came as part of the group Marions for Peace, which drafted a resolution as a sample for what the city council could approve if the council members were to vote on the matter. Marion for Peace was founded in 2003 and endorses nonviolent solutions to local, regional, state, national and international issues, according to a press release.

At the conclusion of the April 2 meeting, the council unanimously approved moving the public comment section to the end of the meeting rather than it taking place at the beginning, as it has been, in an effort to restore order to council proceedings.

Opportunities for public comment related to specific agenda items or public hearings will still be available throughout the duration of meetings.

“I’m not trying to silence them. They can speak, but it’ll be at the end of the meeting, because they’re not contributing anything to the meeting as it is,” Musleh said. He added, “I will not ever support a resolution about the ceasefire in Gaza as it has nothing to do with the city of Ocala.”

Musleh said during the board’s March 19 meeting he felt the lengthy public comment was not constructive.

“I have no plans to ever change my mind and support such a resolution,” he said. “I do think that war is bad, but I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.”

The city council did, however, issue a proclamation in support of Israel initially after the Oct. 7 attack. Now that citizens have demanded the city council take a stance on ceasefire, the council members have refused to get involved.

In the Nov. 11 city council meeting, former Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn read a proclamation condemning the actions of Hamas and supporting Israel’s right to defend itself and its sovereignty and presented it to a number of Jewish community leaders.

“The city of Ocala recognizes the right and the obligation of the state of Israel to defend itself and to exist as a sovereign and independent nation with full rights and privileges afforded to all nations under international law,” Guinn said. “The city of Ocala stands in unity with the Israeli people and Jewish communities everywhere, reaffirms its unwavering commitment to sovereignty and security, and condemns the unprovoked and barbaric attack by Hamas against Israel as citizens and Americans.”

Since voting against putting a resolution on a future agenda for voting on March 5, the city council has taken no action to reconsider the matter despite two more meetings where community members have peacefully protested.

“We are under no obligation to take action on an issue that does not impact the city of Ocala,” said Musleh.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that citizens brought up concerns at four meetings, rather than four consecutive meetings. A clarification has been made to reflect that the March 5 vote was not an official motion, but instead a show of opposition to introducing a resolution in support of ceasefire. 

The city of Ocala denies that the moving of public comment was related to increased discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict during city council meetings. At the Dec. 19, 2023 city council meeting, the city attorney introduced the idea of moving public comment as one of multiple proposed changes to meeting procedure.

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