People on both sides of Israel’s war with Hamas faced off Monday outside City Hall, as counterprotesters showed up at a pro-Israel rally sponsored by local Republicans.
National lawmakers including Reps. Aaron Bean and John Rutherford joined state Sen. Clay Yarborough, state Rep. Dean Black, Sheriff T.K. Waters and City Council members Nick Howland and Michael Boylan on City Hall’s steps to say the battle in Gaza “is Hamas’ fault.”
Across West Duval Street, protesters yelled “Free, free Palestine” as police pushed them deeper into James Weldon Johnson Park and out of earshot.
After he gave the closing prayer at the GOP gathering, Rabbi Shmuli Novak of the Chabad of Jacksonville Town Center said Jewish Americans have always thought that they had “a place of refuge in the Holy Land” of Israel. Then came what he called the terrible terrorist attack that has killed hundreds of Israelis and those of the Jewish faith.
Novak said Jewish Americans must speak out in support of their homeland and against Hamas, which he called a terrorist organization using its own people as human shields.
“If we can’t call that out, where are we as a people?” Novak said. “This is the largest attack against the Jewish people since the Holocaust by far. And while we have faith in God, and we have a very strong, resilient community, and we are finding strength in each other in this very serious time, it was very disheartening to see how quickly people can start to blame the Jews for the fact that they were massacred and attacked.”
One Palestine supporter who would identify herself only as Sarah said those who live there are dying in Israeli attacks and just want to be liberated. They are not attacking Israel but are just human beings, so don’t bomb Gaza just to go after Hamas, she said.
“All they are asking is for the world to hear them and to see them and to stop dropping bombs. We don’t even want aid — they say that they just want the bombs to stop, and that is the saddest cry for help that I have ever heard,” she said. “We want our representatives to ask for a cease fire, to stop supporting genocide, stop sending our tax dollars to Israel because they are not the ones who need help. If you see the videos, there are no armed Palestinians; there are no Palestinian tanks or Palestinian helicopters, no Palestinian militants in the street.”
In the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, hundreds of Hamas fighters flooded across Gaza’s border and killed more than 1,400 civilians and soldiers in Israel. Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli forces have entered what he called “the second stage” of the campaign, adding that Israelis should anticipate “a difficult and long war,” according to NPR.
Numerous rallies in support of Israel as well as the people of Palestine have been held in Florida and around the country. On Oct. 10, the Jacksonville City Council voted 16-1 vote to show its support for Israel. The resolution said the city mourns the loss of life and “unequivocally” stands with Israel as it defends itself. Council President Ron Salem, who is Republican and of Palestinian heritage, cast the only vote against.
Then the Duval County GOP announced its event on City Hall’s steps to show support for Israel and opposition to other marches in Jacksonville and across the country that, according to an email from the party, seemed to justify the Hamas attack on Israel. Along with Sheriff T.K. Waters, state lawmakers including Sen. Clay Yarborough and Rep. Dean Black were present in front of an estimated 300 supporters.
Black, who represents District 15 in Jacksonville and set up Monday’s rally, said he came up with the idea after a friend said news coverage of the almost-monthlong war “is really a little off.”
“She suggested that maybe we wave flags; maybe we just do something to make sure that people know that Israel is not wrong here, and that she fights evil” Black said. “Israel is not wrong. Israel has a right to defend herself. As the rabbi said, perhaps more eloquently than I, Israel was attacked by Hamas. They purposely attacked civilians.”
As Black was speaking, the Jacksonville Palestine Solidarity Network began voicing its concerns at its own rally in the park across from City Hall.
The group held a rally last week at City Hall to demand a stop to what it called the genocide in the Gaza Strip. Monday, they said, they were protesting “in response to the grotesque decision of the Duval County Chapter of the GOP/the Republican Party to hold a ‘Pro-Israel event’ in the midst of the ongoing U.S.-backed genocide.”
The group, some holding Palestinian flags, angrily shouted down some of the comments made by GOP lawmakers. As the group protested, police officers formed a barrier with their bicycles and slowly moved the group of about 40 deeper into the park. One supervisor said police did not want to arrest anyone.