May 30, 2024

Local city officials feel the heat as calls for Gaza ceasefire resolutions mount


Purdue students Arjun Janakan and Nathan Robinson helped lead efforts to get West Lafayette to pass a ceasefire resolution. - Ben Thorp / WFYI

Purdue students Arjun Janakan and Nathan Robinson helped lead efforts to get West Lafayette to pass a ceasefire resolution.

Ben Thorp / WFYI

This story is the second in a three-part series about the war in Gaza and its impact on people in Indiana. You can read and listen to the first part here. We'll link to the third part when it’s published later this week.

Protests and student sit-ins have spread across the U.S., calling for a ceasefire as Israel’s war in Gaza rages on. Those calls have put pressure on –– not just national politicians –– but also local leaders. In some U.S. cities, local officials are feeling the heat as calls for a ceasefire resolution fill the space in city council meetings.

“If you don’t… we will vote you out,” West Lafayette, Ind. resident Jonathan Chaconas told city council members during the May meeting as the crowd behind him broke into applause.

In the small Indiana city that’s roughly 70 miles northwest of the state capitol, hundreds of protestors poured in, delivering long hours of impassioned testimony at every city council meeting for the past three months. They demand the council adopt a resolution calling for a ceasefire and addressing the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“Born and raised in New Jersey I now feel ashamed that my country supports the oppression of my people,” Jehan Salabi, an American-Palestinian Purdue student told city officials fighting back tears.

Some of these scenes have been playing out across the country. As of February, over 70 cities have passed resolutions on the Israel-Palestine conflict with at least 48 calling for a ceasefire.

Purdue student Arjun Janakan helped lead the effort to call for a ceasefire resolution in West Lafayette. He said from his perspective what’s happening in Gaza amounts to a genocide.

“The images that are coming out of the genocide are terrifying and shocking and any person who works at any level of government should be intimately familiar with them, intimately so in a way that moves them to action,” he said.

Janakan is one of four students currently facing disciplinary action at Purdue for his role in creating a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus. He said everything he does right now is about wanting to make a difference.

City resolutions express a position and generally don’t have the force of law. But there is a long history of cities passing resolutions to express where a community stands on certain issues, such as the Vietnam War.

Still, some, including local city officials, question what difference would they make, and if global affairs should even make it to local city meeting agendas.

West Lafayette Mayor Erin Easter said no resolution could ultimately encompass the complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“We want everyone to feel at home and welcome here. That includes everyone,” she said. “Not just one specific group of people or another specific group of people, but making sure that everyone feels like they are welcome here, and have a place here, and can feel safe here.”

West Lafayette Councilor David Sanders said he is frustrated that months of public comment made no mention of Hamas’ role in the conflict and felt it wasn’t an issue to be addressed by the city anyway.
“If we’re talking about climate change, what West Lafayette does or doesn’t do is going to have a very small impact,” he said. “But it’s still an issue that concerns West Lafayette… we don’t have resolutions just on national issues that don’t have a true local component. This is simply not an issue for the West Lafayette city council.”

For some, local resolutions represent a warning to national leadership

Among the cities that did pass resolutions, the details varied but many called for a ceasefire from both sides, the return of hostages taken by Hamas during its Oct. 7 attack, which Israeli authorities said killed 1,200 people, and the delivery of humanitarian aid to starving Gazans.

The United Nations Security Council put forward its own ceasefire resolution in March.

Since the start of Israel's military offensive in Gaza, more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Bloomington, another college city in Indiana, passed a resolution in April condemning Israel and Hamas and calling for a bilateral ceasefire.

Bloomington City Councilor Dave Rollo, one of the resolution cosponsors, said the council worked hard to write a resolution that wouldn’t alienate members of the community –– with some constituents not wanting to mention the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and others wanting to keep out mention of the Palestinian death toll since the start of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza. He said he is happy with the final version.

“It does inform higher offices, they are paying attention to what's happening, especially during an election year,” he said. “So it may well matter. Certainly being silent means that it won't matter.”

Councilors in other cities say those resolutions could have a broader ripple effect, pointing to the upcoming presidential election.

“If the Democrats don’t listen I believe they will see themselves out of power soon enough,” said Detroit Councilmember Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who backed her city’s ceasefire resolution in November.
 


Resolutions are part of a growing number of symbolic actions being taken to send a message to national leadership.

In Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, Democratic primary voters were encouraged to vote “uncommitted” to send a message to President Biden about his failure to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

It’s unclear how long the war in Gaza will continue to be an issue that mobilizes voters come November. For now, it seems like it’s an issue that’s fueled a lot of domestic polarization and a rise in both anti-muslim bias and antisemitism.

West Lafayette’s May city council meeting ended abruptly after councilor David Sanders was given the opportunity to speak. He told attendees that while in the U.S. and Israel it was permitted to criticize the government, residents of “Hamas-controlled Gaza” would not be given the same freedoms.

Sanders ultimately put up a photo of Hamas militants carrying the body of an Israeli woman that led to shouts of “shame” and the end of May’s city council meeting.

Many residents told the council they would continue to return until a resolution is passed.

Contact health reporter Benjamin Thorp at bthorp@wfyi.org.

 

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