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Anti-Israel Demonstrators Illegally Raise Palestine Flags at California Municipal Building

Days after activists hoisted Palestinian flags on three flagpoles in front of Palo Alto City Hall, city officials denounced the action as illegal and vowed to install locks of flagpoles to prevent similar actions in the future.

The city’s response followed a March 30 demonstration at King Plaza, which was sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace – South Bay Chapter, the Council on American–Islamic Relations – Bay Area, and the Islamic Circle of North America Council for Social Justice. 

Activists with the three groups denounced Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and raised Palestinian flags at the Hamilton Avenue plaza.

Mayor Greer Stone said at the April 1 meeting that while the demonstrators had requested and received a gathering permit, as required by local law, the permit did not authorize them to use the city’s flagpoles. Stone also said that event featured a brief and unauthorized march on the streets around City Hall.

“When permits are issued for legitimate First Amendment demonstrations, we expect permittees to respect city property and adhere to the rules outlined in the permit,” Stone said.

“The unauthorized use of the flagpoles was inappropriate and unacceptable,” he added. “I extend my sincere apologies to any community member who was upset by this action.

The flagpoles are designated for displaying the United States, California and Palo Alto flags,” he said.

“Any deviation from the standards creates the illusion that the city is endorsing a particular cause,” Stone said. “Regardless of the cause or flag involved, rules exist for a reason and this incident represents a clear violation of those rules.”

City Manager Ed Shikada told this publication that after seeing the photos of the flags raised on the three flagpoles in front of City Hall, he asked the Department of Public Works to pursue installation of locking mechanisms on the poles to prevent future unauthorized use. He noted that the flags were no longer there when city staff checked on Saturday evening.

Several residents said they were shocked and dismayed by the flag display. Alan Crystal, a Palo Alto resident, denounced at the April 1 meeting what he called “hateful” rhetoric by the demonstrators. One individual wore a full face mask and a uniform with a “Zero Tolerance” sign. He held a baton and handcuffs, Crystal said.

“Is this the tolerant, peaceful Palo Alto that I’ve known and loved or is it being taken over by extremists?” Crystal asked at the April 1 meeting.

He urged the city to strongly condemn the actions of the protestors and to ensure that the city’s laws get enforced in the future.

Palo Alto resident Lori Meyers sees the flagpole transgression as part of a broader pattern of misbehavior by anti-Israel activists. She was present at the Jan. 31 forum in City Hall that was disrupted by pro-Palestine protesters, some of whom screamed over Congressional candidates as they tried to answer questions. The event, which was sponsored by Embarcadero Media Foundation, was suspended just before the candidates’ closing statements because of the constant disruptions.

Meyers, who has been routinely speaking against a ceasefire resolution, said she is increasingly concerned about the anti-Semitism that she has been regularly hearing in public comments since early January, when crowds of speakers opposed to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza began demanding that the council pass a resolution in favor of a ceasefire. The comments, which are often countered by pro-Israel speakers arguing against a ceasefire resolution, have become a regular feature of City Council meetings.

At this week’s meeting, the council once again heard from both sides of the ceasefire argument during an emotional public comment period that featured a “Zoom bomb” episode in which speakers made racist and anti-Semitic comments. Stone interjected at one point to remind the public that the city can’t prevent public comments because of the First Amendment and to encourage people who follow the meeting remotely to hit their “Mute” button.

While Meyers was quick to differentiate between the blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Zoom bombers and the demonstrators at Saturday’s rally, she said in an interview that the recent pattern of unruly behavior going unpunished has given many people a sense of impunity. She noted that one of the sponsors of the March 30 demonstration was the Council of American-Israeli Relations, a group that was disavowed by the White House in December after its executive director said he was “happy to see” Palestinian people break out of Gaza on Oct. 7, the day that Hamas killed about 1,200 people in Israel and took about 240 hostages.

Meyers criticized the decision by the activists to raise the flags over City Hall. She suggested that the council should do more to educate people about anti-Semitism, to publicly disavow it when they see it and to actually enforce city laws to make sure that there are consequences for people involved in illegal misbehavior.

“They felt it was fine for them to put a flag of another country on the Palo Alto flagpoles, which are reserved for the United States flag and the California flag and the Palo Alto flag. Something made them think that that’s OK,” Meyers said. “If you’re not afraid of the consequences, what’s going to make you not do bad behavior?”