Politics Blog

Bellingham council will not weigh in on Gaza-Israel conflict

BELLINGHAM — After hearing about the topic at length from concerned citizens, it looks like Bellingham won’t officially put its two cents into the conversation on the current conflict between Israel and Gaza.

As of Thursday morning, Aug. 7, a three-day ceasefire was still in place, and the sides were continuing indirect negotiations, according to a report from the BBC.

Though the city council’s committee of the whole discussed a resolution that would have condemned the violence against innocent civilians and called for both sides to find a nonviolent path to peace, a motion to bring that resolution to the regular meeting did not pass Monday, Aug. 4.

(Quick reporter's note: I realize this is a few days after the council talked about the letter, but primary election stories took most of my attention over the past two days. Apologies for not posting sooner.)

Longtime council member Gene Knutson said he doesn’t usually struggle with a lot of things that come before the council, but this resolution “has touched a nerve with the citizenry.”

“They’re giving me advice: don’t touch it either way,” Knutson said Monday. “We’ve passed resolutions in the past supporting different groups that come forward, but today is a good example of how this can go forward beyond our realm. If we get to the point of constantly entertaining all these resolutions, it’s not going to look like city government anymore.”

He went on to say he had not been threatened before, but last weekend he was.

“I’m being told I have to vote a certain way,” Knutson said.

In a Tuesday, Aug. 5, phone call, I asked him what type of threats he’d gotten.

“The one that got me was, ‘You’ve got Palestinian blood on your hands,’” Knutson said. “They were political threats. They were 'You'll have Palestinian blood on your hands and we'll remember you at election time.' I've never been threatened politically before."

Knutson said he doesn't plan to run for reelection, so the political threats don't matter much in his case, but the situation became volatile quickly.

On Tuesday, The New York Times published this update on the 72-hour ceasefire which could expire Friday.

From that article:

“Israel announced the withdrawal of all its forces from the Gaza Strip and both sides said they would engage in talks on a lasting arrangement to keep the peace. But the negotiations, also to be mediated by Egypt, are bound to be tricky; and given the participants’ antagonisms and sharply different goals, the cease-fire could still collapse. Israeli officials emphasized that their army, navy and air force remain deployed near the coastal territory, primed to respond to any attacks from Gaza.

Since the conflict began in earnest on July 8, Gaza officials say, more than 1,830 Palestinians have died, most of them civilians, with more of the dead likely to emerge as the rubble is cleared away. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed.”

The resolution was brought to the council by the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center and Veterans for Peace at the council’s regular July 21 meeting.

Council member Terry Bornemann, who is a Vietnam veteran, said he recognized that some people had criticized the council’s decision to look at the resolution when it hasn’t had resolutions about “other equally horrendous situations.”

(For one such tongue-in-cheek criticism, check out KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson’s piece on the resolution from July 24.)

“Personally, as a war veteran who has seen many of the horrors that exist in war, whether it goes on between Israel and Hamas or African nations, there is no justification in my mind,” Bornemann told the committee on Monday. “If you sign up as a soldier, you expect that kind of thing. But when we’re seeing children killed in schools, bombs, wherever it is, whether it’s African girls abducted and used for war, there is no justification.”

But the question many had asked before Monday’s meeting was this: What impact would Bellingham’s resolution have on the war?

“Will this change the world? Will this change what goes on? Probably not,” Bornemann continued. “But I think it’s important for us as citizens of the world to address the horrors that exist in the name of war, defense, whatever.”

Council members Knutson, Cathy Lehman, Pinky Vargas, Roxanne Murphy and Michael Lilliquist said, in short, they were hesitant to weigh in on an international conflict as the governing body of a small to medium-sized municipality.

“I feel it’s important to have conversations publicly, but what I was sworn to do is work on things that are going on in the city of Bellingham, and I’m not comfortable with this resolution but I totally understand the premise,” Vargas said.

Murphy said she felt the resolution had no power.

“The power is in our citizenry,” Murphy said. “Each of you have the power to reach out to federal officials. They are the ones who have authority, jurisdiction … I don’t think this resolution would mean anything to any governing body.”

Lehman said she would not vote to support the resolution but was proud of Bellingham for being full of passion and compassion.

"I think nothing is lost by having this conversation in public," Lehman said.

Lilliquist said “there is power and importance to resolutions,” but like the others, he hesitated to wade into the middle of a decades-old conflict.

“I could entertain a resolution at some point, but this one feels a bit too much like pointing a finger,” Lilliquist said. “A single poorly chosen word on this topic can hurt feelings and fling blame.”

The resolution was not meant to take sides, Bornemann said, only to condemn the deaths of innocent civilians.

“I will always air on saying maybe the wrong word if anything I do can save one child or stop one violent thing,” Bornemann said.

Council member Jack Weiss said he agreed with some of Lilliquist’s points.

“Some resolutions before this body, even on a global or national aspect, can be important,” Weiss said. “One person or one small city speaking up, I think it does have value.”