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Gaza cease-fire resolutions roil U.S. local communities

Audience members listen to public comment at a special session of the Oakland City Council about a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza on Nov. 27, 2023, in Oakland, Calif.
D. Ross Cameron/AP
Audience members listen to public comment at a special session of the Oakland City Council about a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza on Nov. 27, 2023, in Oakland, Calif.

The agenda for town board meetings in Saugerties, New York is typically dominated by local issues, like park clean-up and the highway budget. The turnout for meetings is reliably small. Not this year.

On a recent evening in early April, more than sixty people braved the sleet and rain to demand that the board approve a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas. It was the third straight meeting they'd shown up for.

Across the country, well over 100 cities and towns have passed resolutions demanding a cease-fire. They include college towns that typically skew progressive, but also some big cities such as Atlanta, Detroit and St. Louis. Officials in Oakland, California unanimously passed a resolutionin November calling on Congress to demand a cease-fire and the release of all hostages.

These measures have no direct impact on policy, but sponsors hope they send a message to the Biden Administration and Congress about mounting public unhappiness over the war.

"People are organizing, they're door-knocking, they're calling their legislators. So there's a lot of work that folks are putting into making sure these resolutions are passed," says Deepa Iyer of the Building Movement Project, a nonprofit that provides support for social justice activists. The group runs a website tracking places that have passed or rejected cease-fire measures.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas started six months ago after Hamas killed 1,200 people in an attack in Israel. More than 33,000 Palestinians have died in the conflict, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Hamas took more than 250 people in the attack, some of whom have been been released. Most of these local resolutions are carefully worded, calling for both a cease-fire and the release of hostages. But a few of the measures have gone further, demanding an end to U.S. military support for Israel, for example.

The movement is thrusting local officials into the middle of the kind of complex foreign policy issue they usually don't have to navigate.

In Saugerties, board members are struggling to balance "our concern for the inhumane conditions" in Gaza with "our ability to make a difference," said one elected official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"It's been a little frustrating and slow," said John Schoonmaker, a former Saugerties board member who has been pressing the board to act. "It's taking some time because this is not an issue a lot of them have thought about before."

In some places, there has been pushback.

When the Common Council in Poughkeepsie, New York, recently considered a cease-fire resolution, some board members argued that the measure was taking time and energy away from city concerns

"I believe that this is an international issue. I was elected to take care of city matters," said council member Ernest Henry.

Activists argued that the war in Gaza is a local issue because it's siphoning U.S. tax dollars that could otherwise go to the city into the Israeli military.

But the council narrowly rejected the resolution and passed a separate measure restricting how much the city's Common Council could weigh in on global and national affairs in the future.

Will any of this matter on the ground?

Pollster Lee Miringoff, who heads the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, points out that the Hudson Valley is home to three congressional swing districts, and anything that mobilizes voters on either side could make a difference in November.

"The big question is timing of course. The election is not now and where we'll be with the whole Gaza Israeli situation six months from now is still very much up in the air."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.

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