Public kept at bay as Israeli diplomat addresses joint Arizona legislative session

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

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.

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

“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.

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

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.”