The Howard County Council introduced and voted against passage of a cease-fire resolution in Gaza without a public hearing late Monday, a decision that prompted protests from people who said the council should have taken the issue more seriously.
The resolution failed on a 1-3 vote, with one member absent from the meeting. Council Chair Deb Jung said prior to the vote that the issue was not one that should be taken up by local government.
“Everybody on this council cares deeply about this ongoing conflict, and the pain and suffering of all the parties that are involved,” she said. “But this isn’t what the County Council is designed to do. We need to make sure we are paying attention to what County Council members are supposed to be paying attention to.”
Just before the vote took place, County Executive Calvin Ball released a draft letter to President Joe Biden calling on him to broker a cease-fire and the release of all remaining hostages. He sent the finalized letter on Friday Feb. 9.
“As our top United States officials continue efforts to broker peace in the Middle East, we strongly implore you to negotiate a bilateral ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war and the release of all remaining hostages,” Ball wrote to Biden.
Ball invited the council members to sign the draft letter, and also announced the Interfaith Advisory Council will host a listening session at the end of February, where residents can provide public comment on the Israel-Gaza war.
Some county residents and Liz Walsh, the council member who introduced the resolution, said the decision to not have public input the night of the vote came as a shock.
Jung said she talked to the other council members about public testimony — which would typically happen a month after bills and resolutions are introduced — and the majority of them agreed not to hear it, including herself, she said.
“We did not feel that given the nature of this particular resolution that it would be helpful to the community to hear what we think are a lot of divisive comments that would cause even more hurt and anguish in the community than what we already have experienced through the conflict itself,” Jung said.
Jung said she’s been reading emails from constituents regarding the cease-fire resolution because she cares about what people have to say.
Since Walsh introduced the resolution last week, hundreds of residents have emailed the council with their thoughts about the war. Many of the same residents were in attendance at the meeting, with people pouring into the overflow room.
The at-capacity meeting room was filled with people who held signs to call for the release of Hamas’ hostages and signs that asked the U.S. to stop sending money to Israel and calling for a ceasefire.
As each council member explained why they were voting a certain way, the crowd shouted and Jung had to ask for silence multiple times.
“I know how much you care or you wouldn’t be here,” Jung said, thanking the crowd for showing up to stand up for what they believe in.
Council members Jung, Opel Jones and David Yungmann voted no to the resolution.
Jones said he originally thought the matter wasn’t in the purview of the council, but after talking to residents said he would be more willing to support a statement accepted by as many residents as possible and after more thought is was put into it.
“My heart goes out to every single person affected by the events taking place, and to every single victims, especially civilians, children, babies. … I am in support of a joint statement written by leaders and activists of groups that have a vested interest. The statement should be ironed out, well thought-out, challenged,” Jones said.
Yungmann did not say why he voted no.
Walsh voted yes and said she doesn’t understand why the resolution is controversial.
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.
More than 132 hostages remain, including children, according to the American Jewish Committee.
The Health Ministry in Gaza said 113 bodies were brought to hospitals in the last 24 hours alone, raising the known Palestinian death toll to 27,478 after nearly four months of war, according to the Associated Press.
Calls for a cease-fire have been controversial. While many nations and advocacy groups 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 to limit civilian casualties.
Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah in Fulton said before the hearing that the cease-fire was one-sided and a disservice to Howard County because it erased the idea that Hamas had any guilt in the Oct. 7 attack.
“The most troubling to me was that the cease-fire resolution makes no mention of the continued presence of 130-plus Israeli civilian hostages held in Gaza — was the erasure of those hostages,” Axler said.
He said Hamas is worsening and deepening an already horrific situation, and he finds it disingenuous when people who are concerned about human rights do not acknowledge Hamas at all.
Outside the George Howard building and standing with the group of protesters holding Israel flags was Dan Goodwin, who said he believes the resolution is dividing the community.
“We are not saying here that they’re [those supporting a ceasefire] wrong,” Goodwin said. “That’s not the point. The whole point is saying this resolution is wrong. It’s one-sided. It doesn’t take everybody’s opinion into consideration. She [Walsh] didn’t listen to any of us.”
He said civilian deaths are bad and freedom is important, but international conflicts are not the county’s responsibility.
If the resolution included Hamas, or anything about the Israeli hostages, he said he didn’t think the resolution would have received as much push-back as it did.
Two hours before the meeting began, people on both sides of the argument, including dozens of protestors and counter-protesters, gathered, prayed and chanted. As the meeting got closer, the chanting grew louder and the two groups began shouting at each other.
Jake Burdett, co-chair of Our Revolution, helped organize the pro-cease-fire rally because he said it’s an issue for anyone who is against genocide. He said the rally was planned before the announcement that there would be no public testimony.
“I think it’s a deliberate attempt to not allow community members to show up,” he said. “The council understands that if they heard from dozens of impacted community members, it would look really bad for them if they then still voted against the resolution.”
Hiruy Hadgu, the founder of Howard County for a Free Palestine, who stood with the pro-cease-fire protesters both at a Friday press conference asking the council to restore public testimony and Monday’s vote, said that they want to assert opposition to what’s happening in Gaza.
“The idea that the word cease-fire has become a contentious term — that bothers us,” Hadgu said.
He said there is no one speaking out with “moral authority” and a cease-fire resolution would help to do so.
“It is not only important that we say we shouldn’t bomb people, but it’s also important that we speak out because of what it means for our kids,” he said.
Before the vote, he said he knew the resolution was likely to be voted down.
After the vote, protestors lined up outside of the building again and chanted as people left the meeting.
This story will be updated.