As a Palestinian American, Ruba Abukhdeir said she often feels unheard. This has been particularly true, she said, since she learned that the Howard County Council will not allow public testimony Monday night on a resolution calling for a cease-fire in war-torn Gaza.

“If they think this is not local, it is local because my community feels neglected, unheard and not included,” Abukhdeir said at a press conference Friday morning in front of the county government building. “They’re not even giving us the chance to just come speak what’s on our mind.”

She said not being able to testify before the council is not democracy. Her words were met with “hear hear” from attendees, including members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, the event’s organizer.

Liz Walsh, the council vice chair who pre-filed the resolution last week, said she is expecting crowds larger than the capacity of the building — more than 300 people.

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The decision on public testimony came as a shock not only to some county residents but to Walsh, too, who didn’t find out until the final meeting agenda was published midweek.

She said this is probably only the second time in five years that the council isn’t allowing public testimony before voting on a resolution.

Technically, though, resolutions do not require public hearings, Walsh said. Only bills do.

Liz Walsh has represented District 1 on the Howard County Council since 2018. (Howard County government)

The resolution calls for peace, Walsh said, and she pre-filed it because it’s an issue that she believes directly affects her constituents.

“We have families right here in Howard County, who have lost unspeakable numbers of family members in Gaza already, and fear for the lives of those that remain there,” she said.

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Other council members, however, said they do not think the Israel-Hamas war is a local issue.

“It’s just not something that I think that we should be focusing on,” Council member David Yungmann said. “We shouldn’t be tearing our community apart over something that is for appearances only. It’s not in the purview of the Howard County Council and none of us are qualified to make judgements or educated opinions on a conflict that’s been going on for thousands of years on the other side of the world.”

It’s been almost four months since the militant group Hamas massacred at least 1,200 people — most of whom were civilians — and kidnapped about another 250 in southern Israel on Oct. 7. Israel responded with retaliatory airstrikes and an offensive in the Gaza Strip that have left more than 26,000 Palestinians dead and driven around 85% of the population from their homes. More than 100 hostages were released during a brief pause in the fighting in November.

Calls for a cease-fire have been controversial. While many nations, liberal groups and advocates have called for an end to the death and destruction in Gaza, the United States in December blocked a United Nations resolution calling for a humanitarian cease-fire. U.S. officials called the resolution imbalanced — it failed to condemn Hamas for its initial attack — and said that it would lead to Hamas continuing to rule Gaza. The U.S. has urged Israel to allow for the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza and limit civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, local governments have been making their voices heard.

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On Wednesday night, Chicago’s City Council narrowly adopted a resolution calling for a permanent cease-fire, as well as humanitarian aid and the release of all hostages. It followed weeks of rancorous public meetings. Other U.S. cities to back nonbinding resolutions in recent months include Atlanta, Detroit and San Francisco.

Baltimore City has not followed suit. In December, the City Council rejected a last-minute resolution that called for a long-term cease-fire.

The Howard County Council will vote Monday, on the same day that the resolution is introduced. That’s unusual — the council typically waits a month to vote on bills and resolutions after their introduction.

Zainab Chaudry, CAIR’s Maryland director, said her group is demanding that the council restore a public comment period on the resolution to the agenda. She said that by blocking public comment, the council is not only stripping constituents of their rights to a fair, democratic process, but they are perpetuating the violence and silencing the voices of those advocating for basic Palestinian human rights.

If the council members’ inboxes are any indication, the turnout Monday night could be massive, Yungmann said.

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“We’ve gotten hundreds — it’s possible that we’re [up] to 1,000 — emails and phone calls now,” Yungmann said. He expects the issue to draw the largest crowd in years, so there will be heavy security.

Walsh said she hopes the calls for a cease-fire by localities will put pressure on the Biden administration. She said she was also “just trying to do something at the local level that gives voice to the people here who are in so much pain and trauma at how this entirety of Gaza is being treated.”

If the resolution is defeated Monday, as many expect, Walsh plan to keep on pushing. She said she plans to pre-file the resolution every month.

“It’s not going away,” she said. “It’s a human issue to me, it’s a moral issue to me, and I certainly can’t let it go and I won’t let it go.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Abby Zimmardi is the 2023 investigative reporting fellow for The Baltimore Banner. Zimmardi earned her master’s degree from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism in December 2022. 

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