Public kept at bay as Israeli diplomat addresses joint legislative session

Terry Ballentine, a nurse who said he has been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause since working at a Gaza hospital in the 1980s, planned to silently protest an address to lawmakers by the Israeli Consul General, but was not allowed in to the closed event Wednesday. (Photo by Reagan Priest/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The public was kept out of a joint session of the Arizona Legislature Wednesday where an Israeli diplomat said “Hamas must be eradicated” after an Oct. 7 attack sparked a war that has since killed thousands of civilians.

The unapologetic defense by Consul General to the Pacific Southwest Israel Bachar was warmly received by lawmakers in the House chamber, most of them Republicans. But outside the Capitol, a small group of lawmakers and pro-Palestinian activists complained that their voices had been muzzled: While the address was livestreamed, the galleries were closed to the public.

“This is the people’s House, this is the people’s Senate and all of our collective constituency deserves access to any meetings and any joint floor sessions that happen on these premises,” Sen. Anna Hernandez, D-Phoenix, said at the news conference.

“I do not agree that this session being held today should be closed doors. It should not have the gallery closed to the public” she said.

Hernandez was joined by Democratic Reps. Betty Villegas of Tucson, Analise Ortiz of Phoenix and Mariana Sandoval of Goodyear, along with local advocacy groups including Veterans Against Trump and the Palestinian Community Center.

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Terry Ballentine, a nurse who stood outside the Capitol holding a large Palestinian flag, said he worked at a hospital in Gaza in the 1980s and has supported the Palestinian cause ever since.

“I want to make a statement,” Ballentine said as lawmakers filed out of the House building. “My intent was to stand in the gallery and stand silently and protest but I wasn’t allowed in.”

Republican leaders did not immediately respond Wednesday to questions about their reasons for closing the chamber. But the 30-minute address was mostly low-key with only a few interruptions for applause – including when Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Queen Creek, introduced Bachar by saying “Hamas should be wiped off the face of the Earth.”

The Israel-Hamas war began Oct. 7 when Hamas breached border barriers and launched a surprise attack from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, brutally killing 1,139 Israelis and taking about 240 hostage.

The Israeli military responded with an offensive into Gaza aimed at routing out Hamas, which governs the region. In the months since, more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to a tally by Al Jazeera, and large swaths of Gaza flattened by fighting.

Bachar said Wednesday that an estimated 134 hostages are still being held and insisted that the fighting “will not stop until all the hostages are home.” He blamed the lack of a ceasefire so far on Hamas, and flatly rejected reports of starvation for civilians in Gaza, saying simply that “it is not the truth.”

But outside the Capitol, Maher Arekat, a Palestinian-American and director of the Palestinian Community Center, noted that Israel’s war has landed it before the International Court of Justice. He said that state lawmakers are not paying attention to the demands of their constituents.

Maher Arekat, the director of the Palestinian Community Center in Phoenix, joined other protesters outside the Capitol to oppose a speech inside by the Israeli Consul General to a joint session of the Legislature. (Photo by Reagan Priest/Cronkite News)

“At a time when their constituents continue to make it loud and clear through daily calls, emails and actions that we will not be complicit in the genocide of the Palestinian people, our state lawmakers obstinately ignore us and instead try to summon further ties with the regime that is currently being tried for genocide in the International Court of Justice,” Arekat said at the news conference.

Bachar’s address comes just weeks after a bipartisan group of House members took four days to visit Israel, despite criticisms from fellow lawmakers who said it came during one of the busiest times of the legislative session. At Wednesday’s event, speakers said lawmakers should be focused on issues that are more pressing for Arizonans.

“It is unacceptable that at a time when Arizonans are facing competing crises of housing affordability, supply and safety of drinking water and struggling to fund and execute basic functions of securing common goods like education and public safety, there are lawmakers here at the Capitol who have chosen to spend their precious little time in session taking closed door meetings with agents of a foreign government engaged in a campaign of violence,” said Derek Duba, an organizer for Common Defense, a grassroots veterans’ group.

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Republican lawmakers criticized Democrats who did not attend the speech. Many were like Sen. John Kavanaugh, R-Fountain Hills, who claimed in a social media post that a majority of House and Senate Democrats did not attend Bachar’s address.

Rep. Austin Smith, R-Wittmann, tweeted that “The @AZHouseGOP stands firmly behind Israel in their fight to defeat the animals hellbent on destroying Israel’s existence. Only less than a handful of Democrats bothered to stay… I think we know who the rest support.”

A spokesperson for Senate Democrats said some senators attended a reproductive rights event being held at the Capitol at the same time as Bachar’s speech. A spokesperson for House Democrats was not able to say how many representatives were at the address.

Arekat urged lawmakers to spend time with concerned constituents rather than foreign diplomats.

“Our elected officials must prioritize their constituents and address pressing issues within our state,” Arekat said at the news conference. “They should also advocate for justice and accountability on the international stage. As the representatives of the people, they should uphold transparency, engage in dialogue with their constituents and work towards solutions that promote peace, justice and human rights.”

Reagan Priest Ray-gan Priest (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Reagan Priest expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Priest has also worked at The Copper Courier, The State Press, Cronkite News D.C., The Arizona Republic and Arizona PBS.