Ocala City Council refuses to hear further public comment after fifth meeting of protest over Gaza conflict

File Photo: Council President Barry Mansfield (left) and Councilmember Jim Hilty (right) at an Ocala City Council meeting at Ocala City Hall in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

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Posted April 18, 2024 | By Caroline Brauchler

The Ocala City Council chose not to hear any further public comment Tuesday after councilmembers reaffirmed that they would not bring forward a resolution in support of a ceasefire between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters in Gaza.

Only one person was permitted to speak before council interrupted all public comment, regardless of the topic, to agree on not hearing any more. In total, 16 people registered for public comment for meeting.

Tuesday’s meeting was the fifth in which an abundance of citizens came to urge the city council to pass a resolution either in favor or not in favor of a ceasefire between the forces in war-ravaged Gaza.

Since the escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict that occurred following a Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, citizens been discussing the conflict at length during city council meetings.  

The attack by Hamas left about 1,200 citizens of Israel dead, according to Tel Aviv. In retaliation, Israel’s military 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 control of the same region in the eastern Mediterranean. Palestine has been controlled by the Hamas militant group since 2007.

In the U.S., local governments nationwide have approved resolutions supporting a ceasefire in the hopes that state and federal elected officials will also support calling for a ceasefire. Over 70 U.S. cities have passed resolutions to this effect, including Chicago and Seattle, according to Reuters.

On Tuesday, city council members once again expressed that they would not support such a resolution and decided not to hear any further comment from the public on the matter.

Some dissenters in the audience called out that they believed this to be censorship.

“It has nothing to do with censorship, it’s a matter of hearing repetitive information,” Councilmember Jim Hilty responded.

The section for public comment at the end of each meeting is reserved for comments not related to any item on the agenda, according to the city, but the council’s reasoning for not continuing to hear public comment on Tuesday was because members said they have no interest in putting an item related to the Gaza conflict on the agenda.

Council President Barry Mansfield, members Kristin Dryer, Hilty and Jay Musleh agreed that the council should not pursue a resolution. Councilmember Ire Bethea could not be heard verbally agreeing or disagreeing.

“I think it’s entirely appropriate for council to say this is not an item up for consideration. We’ve heard you, thank you, and move onto more important business,” City Attorney William Sexton said.

Ocala City Clerk Angel Jacobs counted the 16 total forms submitted from individuals who wished to comment at a “Gazette” reporter’s request. The “Gazette” has requested these forms in the interest of determining whether all the people who signed up for public comment intended to speak on the conflict in Gaza.

“I appreciate comments from both sides, and some of the comments are quite eloquent. But this is not a matter for city council to consider. It never should have been a matter for your city council,” Musleh said.

The city council did consider the issue, however, when the former Mayor Kent Guinn issued a proclamation in support of Israel and its right to defend itself.

In the proclamation given on Nov. 11, 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.”

After the five meetings in which citizens have come forward to demand that the council support ceasefire, demand the council vote against supporting ceasefire, express solidarity for Israel or express solidarity for Palestine, the council decided it would hear no more and that it was a “dead issue.”

“I don’t think we need to hear all the public comments,’’ Mansfield said. “We have already listened to everybody, and again we appreciate everybody’s opinion, but this is not the business of city council.

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