Exeter declines to weigh in on Israel-Gaza cease-fire proclamation: Here's why

EXETER — After three meetings of debate, the town Select Board rejected a request to adopt a proclamation calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

The proclamation, drafted by approximately 10 residents of the town, sought the Select Board’s support for the “immediate de-escalation” and “bilateral ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas, the release of hostages from both parties as well as the “immediate entry of humanitarian aid” into Gaza.

Board members said this week they were torn on whether they could speak on a federal issue on behalf of the entire town.

Karishma Manzur, representing herself and approximately 10 other residents, urged the town to support calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Karishma Manzur, representing herself and approximately 10 other residents, urged the town to support calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Similar proclamations have been requested to be adopted by surrounding cities and towns, including Portsmouth and Durham. Portsmouth opted not to take up a cease-fire resolution.

While Durham approved a similar proclamation, Exeter board members noted Durham has a town council form of government, which is different than a Select Board.

A more proper venue for an SB2 town like Exeter, they said, would be for the issue to go before residents at a Town Meeting via a citizens' petition.

Select Board Chairman Niko Papakonstantis said while he personally was in support of the proclamation, as a board member he could not vote to approve it. He said it would set a precedent for the future.

Select Board member Julie Gilman said the situation is a "slippery slope" and she couldn’t guarantee she would be representing the “whole body of this town.”

“If there’s a disagreement about another something that’s happening at the federal level or decisions that are being made at the federal level (in the future), it will come to us again for our opinion or our representation as the whole town to support or condemn or whatever the stance is,” she said.

Why was cease-fire proclamation brought forward?

The proclamation request, initially a resolution, first came to the Select Board during its meeting May 13, when Karishma Manzur, representing herself and approximately 10 other residents, urged the town to support calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

“We are here today as we believe in the sanctity of life and we denounce all groups who are responsible for all the killings, kidnappings, sexual violence, starvation, pain, suffering and terrorizing in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank,” said Manzur.

Robert Azzi said when he and his family moved to Exeter in 1988, they were the only Muslims in town. He said the current conflict is more than just a national problem but also affects the local level.

“I don’t think that it’s strictly a question of what’s happening to those poor people in Gaza or Israel, it’s what we show our children what we care about and how we want to model our behavior as global citizens for other children and other people to be part of the world,” he said.

Erica Wilson, a psychiatrist from Exeter, said she has seen how the conflict is “weighing in” on her patients.

“We all feel powerless,” she said. “I don’t see why peace should ever be disagreed with, and I think coming out as a community and saying… ‘We don’t agree with this, and we’d like to see peace…’ I feel like it’s a small thing that we can do as a community, and I feel it would lighten the hearts of a lot of people in this community to know that we’ve sort of come together to say that.”

Not everyone supports cease-fire proclamation

In a letter to the Select Board, Ivor Freeman stated "international matters should not be for this board to consider unless they affect the town directly.”

“There have been no resolutions by the board regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor the civil wars in Sudan or Syria, as far as I am aware,” he stated.

Freeman also added “there has been a huge increase in antisemitism acts and talks” in the past year, and reminded the board “it is important that a resolution that you pass cannot be cited or construed as adding to the excuses for antisemitic actions here or elsewhere.”

“The situation in the Middle East is very complex and beyond the understanding of most of us in the USA,” added Freeman. “We wish all people to be free and have their human rights respected. We here in Exeter cannot accuse or encourage one-sided thinking.”

Board supportive of proclamation, but split on taking action

Select Board member Dan Chartrand said he was “comfortable” with approving the proclamation after making edits, including removing a call-to-action to federal officials.

“It was clear to me there was broad support for this," Chartrand said.

Select Board member Molly Cowan agreed with Chartrand but said she felt the decision was “a little out of our lane, even if it’s the right thing to do.”

Papakonstantis told supporters they could always bring forward a citizens’ petition at the March Town Meeting.

"I pray and hope that this is still not going on in March,” he said. “But if it is, please do what you think you need to do to get the town to cast their vote."

After the board’s vote, Manzur thanked the board for not taking the proclamation lightly but voiced her disappointment in the final decision.

Hamas fighters attacked Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people, leading to the current conflict in Gaza. Many were sexually assaulted, and about 250 people were taken hostage, with 116 remaining captive and about 25% of them believed to be dead, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Israel's attacks in Gaza have killed more than 37,000 Palestinians since Hamas attacked Israel, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, which does not differentiate combatants from civilians.

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Exeter declines to weigh in on Israel-Gaza cease-fire proclamation