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Palestinians in Fresno say mayor alienated their community. ‘Mayor Dyer: We are Fresnans’

More than 200 people attended a Tuesday evening protest, calling for an end to Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine, as termed by the United Nations and international human rights organizations.
Omar Rashad
More than 200 people attended a Tuesday evening protest, calling for an end to Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine, as termed by the United Nations and international human rights organizations.

Mayor Jerry Dyer deflected criticism this week over raising the Israeli flag at an Oct. 12 news conference outside Fresno City Hall, maintaining it was not in any way a political statement.

In a Wednesday morning phone call with Fresnoland, the mayor of California’s fifth largest city stated that raising the Israeli flag at Eaton Plaza across from Fresno City Hall was a gesture of solidarity with Israel — and said it shouldn’t be read as anything more, including political alignment with the Israeli government and military.

“It's either a lie or he doesn't know what he's doing,” said Omar Altamimi, a policy and advocacy coordinator with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “He raised a flag for the past week. He's been attending events, lashing out at anti-Israel protesters. All of this in the context of yes, there was an attack on Israel and Israeli civilians. But we're also watching a genocide unfold in the Gaza Strip.”

Over the last week, Palestinian Fresno residents have become upset over Dyer’s actions and public statements at the news conference, which was also attended by Fresno city councilmembers Annalisa Perea, Mike Karbassi, Garry Bredefeld and Miguel Arias.

Since Dyer’s Oct. 12 flag-raising ceremony, two protests were organized at the River Park Shopping Center, drawing hundreds of community members who hoisted up Palestinian flags and signs calling for Palestinian liberation from apartheid.

At one point, protesters chanted Tuesday "Dyer is a liar," which they said referred to his lack of engagement with Fresno's Palestinian community.

Dyer pushed back against whether he alienated Palestinians, but acknowledged to Fresnoland that he had not spoken with any Palestinian Fresno residents since the latest stretch of violence in Israel and Palestine started Oct. 7.

“I read my notes,” Dyer told Fresnoland, “and there was nothing in there intended to alienate or even mention Palestine.”

Dyer’s failure to mention Palestine is the problem for Palestinian Fresno residents, because they say it's one-sided and ignorant of what has been termed a segregated, apartheid system by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

"That's not the attitude you want to have when you're a leader of a community that is very diverse in the City of Fresno," said Ihab Elzaanoun, a Palestinian resident who has lived in Fresno since 1984. "You stand by the Armenians, which is a good thing because of what they have suffered. You stand by the Ukrainians, and you raise their flag. You see with one eye when it comes to Palestinian issues. That's not justice.”

Elzaanoun told Fresnoland that he lost 21 relatives — his cousin’s in-laws — in a single Israeli airstrike on a residential building in Gaza on Sunday.

As of Oct. 19, Palestinian militants killed about 1,400 Israeli people, with 206 people taken hostage, according to the Israeli government. The Israeli government has killed 3,785 Palestinians and injured 12,500 others, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. A majority of the Palestinian people killed are children, and there are another 1,200 people in Gaza who are believed to be buried under the rubble of razed buildings.

Hundreds of Fresno Palestinian residents rally

"Mayor Dyer: We are Fresnans," declared Sukaina Hussain, a deputy executive director at CAIR’s Sacramento and Central Valley office, at the Tuesday evening pro-Palestine protest. "We are not going to stay silent in the face of these dehumanizing statements that forget Palestinians, that forget the struggle, that forget the genocide, that forget the occupation."

Dyer also told Fresnoland that he did not intend to wade into the decades-long history of conflict between Israel and Palestine, denying that raising the Israeli flag means the City of Fresno is in full political alignment with the Israeli government and its military. He also took issue with it being perceived as such, adding that the City of Fresno does not take political stances.

Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer stands off to the side of the Fresno Council Chambers during a Fresno City Council Meeting on Oct. 5. Criticism has also come from non-Palestinian Fresno residents: at Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting, six people criticized Dyer for ignoring the struggles of Palestinian people.

“It's really dangerous for our Palestinian community here who have not received any sort of support or anything from the mayor,” said one person during public comment. “I think it's really disappointing to just choose one side.”

Dyer told Fresnoland that raising the Israeli flag was entirely his idea. He added that he did not consult with any local rabbis on whether doing that was the best way to support their community, but he said he made them aware of what he was doing.

The flag-raising came after a synagogue in North Fresno, Temple Beth Israel, was vandalized — along with a nearby bakery. Fresno police have arrested a 30-year-old suspect. Additionally, Dyer said that local Jewish community members have told him about a heightened feeling of antisemitism in the Fresno community, specifically in the last two years.

“All of that is really what caused me to want to do everything we could as a city to demonstrate that we support them, we’re there with them: the Jewish community, as well as the state of Israel,” Dyer said.

Since Oct. 7, Dyer said he spoke with two rabbis in Fresno and visited Temple Beth Israel. While he didn’t speak with any Fresno Palestinian residents since the beginning of the violent conflict this month, he said he reached out to one Palestinian community leader the day he raised Israel's flag.

Altamimi, the policy advocate with CAIR, said Palestinian casualties dramatically outnumber Israeli casualties — which is backed up by data from the United Nations and several human rights groups, including Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. When elected leaders in the U.S. refuse to acknowledge Palestinians, Altamimi said they are worsening the situation.

“These mayors, politicians will probably become assemblymembers and congressional people down the line,” said Altamimi, who is Palestinian. “If they’re not engaging Palestinians now, they’re not engaging Muslim community members now, they're not going to do it 10 years down the road when they're in a higher position of power — when they have more power to influence the outcome.”

Altamimi said there is a difference between raising the Israeli flag and supporting a community targeted by a hate crime: “These are two different things and trying to mix them all together is just another way to get himself out of this mess,” Altamimi said of Dyer.

Dyer repeats unverified claim - again

Last week’s flag-raising drew a few pro-Palestinian protesters, including Layla, a Palestinian Fresno resident who asked to be identified only by her first name. She brought a Palestinian flag since one wasn't raised that day, and, during the news conference, kept questioning why.

At one point during the news conference, Dyer claimed terrorists were beheading babies in Israel, while criticizing pro-Palestinian protesters in attendance.

That specific claim has become the subject of scrutiny, especially since an Israeli government spokesperson told several news organizations on the morning of Oct. 12 that there was no proof of babies being beheaded, despite a major with the Israeli military previously saying otherwise.

Biden made a similar claim in an Oct. 11 news conference when he said he saw pictures of beheaded children, only for his press office to immediately walk back the claim when reporters in Washington D.C. sought to confirm the photo evidence. Biden’s press office clarified that he had not seen any photo evidence and that his comments were actually based on media reports and statements from an Israeli government spokesperson.

Additionally, a CNN reporter who shared the unverified claim in an Oct. 11 broadcast corrected the record the following day to say the Israeli government could not provide evidence.

In the Wednesday morning phone call with Fresnoland, Dyer doubled down on his comments last week about unconfirmed beheaded Israeli babies, adding that he’s a part of a group of mayors across the United States in contact with the Anti-Defamation League, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and “have been briefed by a lieutenant colonel who's on the front lines in Israel.”

Layla, the Palestinian Fresno resident, said Dyer should not repeat the unverified claim, especially after the Israeli government and Biden walked it back.

"I can't respect a person that doesn't do their research and they hold the position they hold,” Layla said. “That's going to backfire on him and it already has — it only makes him look bad.”

Pro-Palestine protesters spread out on the sidewalk along Blackstone and Nees avenues Tuesday evening at a demonstration calling for an end to what human rights organizations term the Israeli occupation of Palestine and a system of apartheid. Omar Rashad | Fresnoland Layla added that sharing unverified information can have very real consequences in the United States, where Arab and Muslim people have already been the targets of hate crimes, including just last week in Chicago.

"His [Dyer’s] words have consequences, Biden's words have consequences,” Layla said. “Because of those fake stories about the beheading of babies, we had a [Chicago] landlord stab a 6-year-old Palestinian boy 26 times and his mother 12 times.”

Fresno Palestinian residents call for flag-raising

As Layla questioned why the Palestinian flag wasn’t also being raised during the Oct. 12 news conference, Rabbi Rick Winer — who leads the reform Jewish congregation at Temple Beth Israel — said he was struck by her calls to acknowledge Palestinian people.

“One of the things shouted that I heard over and over: ‘Why aren't you raising the Palestinian flag?’” Winer told Fresnoland. “What hit my gut was — yeah, why not?”

At the Oct. 12 flag-raising, he said he also heard horrible things shouted by pro-Palestinian protesters in attendance — and he said it made him feel unsafe. He noted how he was not made aware that he would even be speaking at the news conference, so he went off the cuff when asked to share some thoughts.

In his remarks, he shared concern for Palestinians who’ve been killed since Oct. 7 and prayers for a peaceful resolution.

“Depending on how I phrase my support for ending suffering for Palestinians, some people in the Jewish community would be upset about that,” Winer said.

He added that he appreciates support from Dyer and the Fresno Police Department, especially in the days since his community’s synagogue was vandalized. He said his congregation is in mourning after following violence overseas and last week’s hate crime.

While most of his congregation is sympathetic to Palestinian civilians being killed, Winer said some would object to the Palestinian flag being raised in Fresno.

But the dialogue on Israel and Palestine cannot be one-sided, Winer said: “We need to be able to raise both flags. It is one sided, and we're not going to get to where we need to be until we can have both flags.”

This article first appeared on Fresnoland and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.