Elected officials in Orange County are increasingly being asked to weigh in on Israel’s continued bombardment of the Gaza strip that has killed over 10,000 people and displaced over a million after Hamas launched a surprise attack into Israel that killed over a thousand people on Oct. 7.
Though the violence is occuring thousands of miles away from the heart of Orange County, the impact is being felt locally by tens of thousands of Jewish and Arab American constituents who live together here.
Jewish and Muslim groups like the Anti-Defamation League and Council on American Islamic Relations are also reporting a spike in hate crimes locally.
From the outset, vigils and rallies for Palestine in OC have been a regular occurance across Santa Ana, Anaheim along with weekly protests in Irvine which organizers say bring out thousands for the people who were killed and displaced in Gaza.
Vigils have also been held for Israel in OC for the people killed and taken hostage.
As the bloodshed continues, it’s fueling a debate across Orange County on how local leaders should respond to international issues that are deeply felt locally.
So far, several elected bodies have taken a position on the situation in Gaza and the Oct. 7 attacks.
Now, the Santa Ana City Council might be the first in Orange County to adopt a resolution in support of Palestine – something California cities like Richmond and Cudahy have also done.
The Debate in OC
In the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, Orange County supervisors, officials in Fullerton, Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach all put out statements or adopted resolutions on Israel and Gaza.
A majority of county supervisors faced backlash from Arab American and Muslim residents and groups for their stance on the issue – calling it one-sided toward Israel, ignoring the loss of Palestinian lives and stoking the flames of Islamophobia here amid a hate crime spike.
Orange County Supervisor Chair Don Wagner, who signed on to the statement, pushed back against residents who criticized the remarks in a public meeting last month.
“I will express my disappointment that we were unable to hear a single speaker say they condemn Hamas,” he said. “It is them who are blaspheming, it is them who are making the Islamic community here and around the world look bad, and you should be calling out them.”
Huntington Beach City Council members voted unanimously last month on a resolution in support of Israel and condemning Hamas.
“Hamas attacked Israel in the same fashion that we were attacked on 9/11,” said Mayor Tony Strickland at the Oct. 17 city council meeting. “The reason for this resolution is our solidarity for Israel and the right for them to defend itself.”
Other elected officials have expressed concern over the humanitarian impacts on the Palestinian people and the manner in which Israel is defending itself.
Santa Ana City Council members Ben Vazquez and Jonathan Hernandez plan to bring forth at a future meeting a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and voicing support for the Palestinian people.
“My heart is with the Palestinian people who have endured a relentless campaign of ethnic cleansing and collective punishment at the hands of the State of Israel,” Vazquez said at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Our tax dollars are directly funding the destruction of the homes and killing Palestinians.”
Dodging The Debate
Despite the intensity of the debate and ongoing rallies and vigils across OC, a host of local politicians have tried to avoid the discussion.
During a recent Santa Ana City Council meeting last week, Mayor Valerie Amezcua tried to stop public comments on the issue, saying international matters were not in the city’s jurisdiction.
“If you’re here to discuss international matters, we’re not going to allow those during public comments,” she said at the start of the public comment portion of the meeting.
But five of her council colleagues – including City Councilman David Penaloza who often sides with Amezcua – voted to overrule her decision and allow residents to weigh in on the issue.
Amezcua and City Councilman Phil Bacerra voted against it.
“There’s two sides to everything and so I’m a no vote. You have Israel and you have Palestine,” Amezcua said.
Vazquez questioned if the city was suppressing people’s first amendment rights by not letting them speak on the subject.
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said at the meeting that under the Brown Act – California public open meeting law – city council members could restrict comments to matters in their jurisdiction.
“So it’s up to the city council to decide if an issue is under the subject matter jurisdiction of the city,” she said, adding that five votes would be needed to overturn the mayor’s decision.
The vote to overturn Amezcua’s decision came after a resident yelled at council members for not allowing people to speak about what’s happening in Gaza before the microphone was cut off and the meeting was briefly recessed.
It’s not just in Santa Ana where some politicians seem unwilling to debate the issue.
Two weeks ago, efforts by Mirvette Judeh, a Palestinian American resident and central committee member, to get the Democratic Party of Orange County’s legislation committee to support a resolution in congress calling for a ceasefire in Gaza were squashed when the committee leaders adjourned the meeting before a debate could take place.
Democrats Naz Hamid, Lauren Johnson-Norris, Libby Frolichman, and Florice Hoffman voted to adjourn the meeting. Democrats Jose Trinidad Castaneda and Marleen Gillespie voted against it.
Former Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno said in an email to the committee chairs Hamid and Jonathan Adler – who abstained from the vote – that it is during these times that discussions and debate are fundamental.
“To seemingly orchestrate a motion to adjourn before the item could be discussed, and to motion adjournment in a manner that does not allow discussion on the motion–while certainly allowed under Roberts Rules–certainly raised a very concerning cloud on the commitment to work together as Democrats within our diverse viewpoints,” he wrote.
Last month, the Democratic Party of Orange County put out a statement on Facebook condemning the Hamas attack and mourning the loss of all innocent lives including people killed by Israel’s response.
Randall Avila, executive director of the Republican party, did not respond to email questions Friday if the local GOP put out statements or passed resolutions about Palestine or Israel.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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