Chicago alderpeople primed for a sensitive and potentially bitter debate over calls for a cease-fire in Gaza

Alderpeople have debated the cease-fire resolution for months. Now they’ve scheduled a special meeting to vote on a non-binding resolution.

Students protest over the Israel-Hamas war at City Hall
Students protest at City Hall in an effort to bring about a cease-fire in Gaza vote by the City Council, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times
Students protest over the Israel-Hamas war at City Hall
Students protest at City Hall in an effort to bring about a cease-fire in Gaza vote by the City Council, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago alderpeople primed for a sensitive and potentially bitter debate over calls for a cease-fire in Gaza

Alderpeople have debated the cease-fire resolution for months. Now they’ve scheduled a special meeting to vote on a non-binding resolution.

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For months, Chicago’s City Council has been arguing about how to weigh in on an international crisis that it may have little power over, but that many residents are deeply affected by.

The tense and protracted debate over whether the City Council should call for a cease-fire in Gaza is expected to continue Wednesday, as a vote on a cease-fire resolution is finally expected. But negotiations over the resolution’s specific language, and even efforts to replace it entirely with a new version, continued into Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile, pressure to take a stance on Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in the conflict against Hamas, which has killed more than 26,000 people, mostly women and children, played out in Chicago’s streets and City Hall this week.

Chicago high schoolers dominated the lobby of City Hall with a sit-in Tuesday, chanting “Long live Gaza,” and “Viva viva, Palestina” as alderpersons left for the day. They were some of hundreds of CPS students who walked out in support of the cease-fire resolution.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, penned a letter urging the council to “vote yes on this resolution that calls for a ceasefire in Gaza” and “the release of all hostages.”

A day earlier, organized labor leaders from the public and private sector convened at a union hall, calling national support for a cease-fire “the biggest expression for peace by the labor movement in a full generation.”

Many view the Council’s vote as a chance for the Democratic National Convention’s host city to send a message to President Joe Biden ahead of his arrival here this summer.

A final version of the so-called “Uniting for Peace” resolution had not been publicly released yet as proponents continue to seek support, though it’s expected to call for the release of all hostages, an immediate cease-fire, and humanitarian aid for Palestinians in Gaza. But at least one alderperson, Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward, said a group of his colleagues are working on an entirely different cease-fire resolution with the hope of coming to a compromise before Wednesday morning.

And opposition to a cease-fire resolution altogether persists, with two alderpersons proposing a new resolution that doesn’t call for a cease-fire at all, but instead for the release of all hostages.

The 11th-hour negotiations reflect the deep seriousness and sensitivity around the issue, and signal a contentious council meeting to come on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, some organizers in Chicago, many who have lost family members in Gaza, are urging elected officials to put political jockeying and “obstructionism” aside in the interest of ending the violence.

“As long as the spirit of the resolution remains the same, that’s what’s important to our community and our movement,” said Muhammad Sankari, with the U.S. Palestinian Community Network.

What the current cease-fire resolution says

The current resolution is modeled after one passed by the United Nations General Assembly in mid-December. More than 150 nations voted in its favor, with 10 voting against and 23 abstaining. The General Assembly convened the vote after the U.S. vetoed a resolution in the UN Security Council calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

The current version of the resolution lists both Israeli and Palestinian death tolls. More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war since Oct. 7. The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, and saw roughly 250 taken hostage.

An original version of the resolution acknowledged the hostages, but did not include a call for their unconditional release. An updated version does, at the urging of numerous council members.

Still, some take issue with the fact that it is modeled after the UN’s Resolution — arguing that passing such a resolution would undermine the U.S. government.

“We would be undermining our own authority at the UN as the United States,” Waguespack said. “And that’s something that I think everybody from the governor up to the president don’t want to see happen.”

Others, namely Alds. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, and Debra Silverstein, 50th Ward, appear to oppose a cease-fire altogether without the release of all hostages first.

“I want peace. I would like to see all of the fighting to stop and I have said that over and over and over again,” Silverstein, who is the council’s only Jewish member, said Tuesday. “However, we do need to make sure that all of the hostages are released, and that Hamas is disarmed.”

Silverstein previously said she looked forward to collaborating on the resolution after a main sponsor, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, agreed to delay a vote on it amid Holocaust Remembrance Day last week. But collaboration between the two seemed far-fetched Tuesday as Silverstein and Lopez made public an alternative resolution that only calls for the release of all hostages.

That resolution is almost certainly a non-starter for cease-fire proponents, as it does not call for one. It also calls the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas “unprovoked.”

Palestinian justice activists who have condemned the attack by Hamas have also fought to contextualize it — noting that Israel has maintained a 56-year occupation over the Palestinian Territories that include the West Bank, and human rights groups have referred to Israel as an apartheid government.

Effects of a resolution for a cease-fire in Gaza

Proponents of the resolution argue Chicago is in a unique position to influence Biden to support a cease-fire as the city prepares to host the Democratic National Convention in August, where the party will formally nominate its candidate for president.

“Chicago matters a lot in terms of the national political landscape,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. “We know that the DNC is going to take place in Chicago and what Chicago does is important for the rest of the country … It has a ripple effect.”

Political strategist Delmarie Cobb said while protests are already expected for the DNC, rejecting the resolution will fuel demonstrations leading up to and during the convention.

“It won’t just be Chicagoans protesting,” Cobb said. “It’s going to be people from all over the country coming here, descending on Chicago to make their voices heard. So everybody needs to think very carefully about their vote tomorrow.”

But the actual effect of the non-binding resolution on forcing a cease-fire would be minimal, said University of Chicago political scientist Paul Poast.

“It’s not clear what the leverage would be,” Poast said. “Is it something where the city’s going to pass this resolution, and they’re going to say to the Biden campaign, that ‘Look, we’re going to pull the DNC convention if you don’t actually take measures towards having this resolution be activated’? I don’t think that is going to happen.”

But Poast said the resolution could continue to put pressure on federal elected officials from Illinois, who could have a greater impact on pushing Biden to call for a cease-fire.

“I don’t think the whole idea of somehow the national convention being held here is going to play a role. I don’t think that’s the route,” Poast said. “I think the route would be that if, suddenly, senators and representatives from states where major cities are passing the cease-fires, then go and start putting pressure on the Biden administration to say, ‘Hey, you have to do something about this, because I’ve had a major city — the city of Chicago — pass this.”

Proponents of the cease-fire have been criticized for dedicating time and energy to an international conflict. Ald. Anthony Beale said Tuesday he’ll be voting “no” on any resolution that “wastes taxpayer dollars” (though he did vote for an October resolution condemning the Hamas attack).

Poast said while it’s true the council has little oversight of international policy, governing also includes weighing in on conflicts that impact constituents one way or another.

“If you have a sizable population who are either from the affected area, or have family in the affected area … this international issue can become something of local concern because of the diaspora,” Poast said.

Cook County, which includes Chicago, has the most Palestinians of any other county in the U.S.

Calls for and against a cease-fire in Gaza

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Reps. Jonathon Jackson, Chuy Garcia, and Delia Ramirez have all called for a ceasefire. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson joined that call last week, likening the fight for a cease-fire to the movement for Black liberation.

“I’m not mayor of the city of Chicago if people weren’t pushing the government to recognize people’s humanity and understand the value of what liberation — what it means for people, groups and nations. And in this instance, people should be liberated,” Johnson said.

Students who filled the lobby of City Hall Tuesday demanded action. Aaliyah Young, 18, said security officers at her school tried to stop her from walking out, but she felt staying at school would make her complicit.

“Everyday someone’s dying,” Young said, “and no one’s doing nothing about it, especially not the U.S.”

“It’s annoying to see videos every single day of babies dying, children dying, their pets dying, their mother and fathers are dying, literally.”

Progressive Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace Chicago and IfNotNow Chicago, local chapters of national organizations, have staunchly supported a cease-fire, as well as an end to U.S. support of Israel.

The Anti-Defamation League, which says it tracks occurrences of anti-Semitism, has called those groups “extremist” and does not support a cease-fire. The group sent a letter to alderpersons this month stating that “we know it is counterintuitive to oppose a ceasefire” but “if Israel is not permitted to dismantle Hamas, innocent Israelis and Palestinians will continue to be killed.”

The Jewish United Fund, which also opposes the cease-fire resolution, has been, together with Silverstein, offering screenings to alderpersons of a film that Silverstein said shows the violence that occurred on Oct. 7. Silverstein said last week that 8 to 10 of her colleagues had taken her up on the offer to watch it.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago politics and government for WBEZ.