By Tom Peterson, Michigan Advance
Pro-Israel protesters gather near Woodruff Park in Atlanta after war broke out between Israel and Palestine. // Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
Just over a week ago, rockets began to pour out of Gaza and Hamas militants stormed Israeli villages, killing and kidnapping civilians as well as military and police.
The surprise attack left the key U.S. ally shaken and bloodied, and more violence is expected in a blooming conflict that could have major implications at home and abroad.
Georgia’s elected officials and regular citizens expressed shock, sadness and anger in the first week of the Israel-Hamas war, though the targets of those emotions varied from person to person.
Gov. Brian Kemp recently announced that he has instructed the state treasurer to buy $10 million in bonds from Israel as a show of support, which he said was the highest available amount on the market. The state’s total current bond investment in Israel is $25 million, according to his office.
“Israel is one of Georgia’s strongest allies and greatest friends, and our support for its people as they endure horrific attacks from terrorists is unwavering,” Kemp said in a statement. “Though this conflict was not of Israel’s choosing, we know they will be victorious in this fight against evil and those who seek its destruction.”
Kemp, who visited Israel in May on an economic development trip and met with Israeli leaders, also ordered the U.S. and Georgia flags to fly at half-staff on state property until sunset on Saturday.
Gov. Brian Kemp shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Israel in May. // Via Twitter
And he blasted former President Donald Trump on social media after the GOP presidential frontrunner made comments at a rallycriticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calling Hezbollah “very smart.”
“It is never acceptable to praise deranged murderers or undermine one of our closest allies in their darkest hour,” Kemp said Thursdayon X, formerly known as Twitter.
Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Democrat who is Georgia’s first Jewish U.S. senator, returned early from a bipartisan Senate national security delegation trip to Asia because of the turmoil. Ossoff’s staff said the senator spoke with Israeli President Isaac Herzog from the U.S. embassy in Beijing on Tuesday.
“The American people and the people of Georgia stand in support of and, in solidarity with, the Israeli people at this moment of outrage and tragedy,” Ossoff said in remarks read by a staff member at a solidarity event held this week in Sandy Springs.
The fallout also quickly touched the Gold Dome, where future legislative debates will likely be shaped by the attacks and ongoing response to those attacks. A bill defining antisemitism in state law that would have enabled stricter penalties for those who commit crimes inspired by antisemitism stalled this yearamid concerns that it could stifle legally protected speech criticizing Israel’s government. That bill remains alive for next year.
Sen. Jon Ossoff talks with Israeli President Isaac Herzog from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. // Via Twitter
State Sen. Russ Goodman, a Cogdell Republican, was visiting Israel with a group when Hamas attacked. He said he could hear rockets being launched from the protective Iron Dome and automatic weapons being fired near his hotel.
“I will continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in Israel, and I will stand with them in solidarity against the disgraceful attacks from both the terrorists that surround them and terrorist sympathizers here at home,” Goodman said in a statement Thursday.
Gaza is a 140-square mile Palestinian enclave bordered by Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea.
People living there say the Israeli government suppresses their rights, using laws restricting their ability to travel and participate in politics, a blockade preventing basic goods from arriving, constant surveillance and violent repression.
Israeli authorities say sanctions against Gaza are necessary for security.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International have accused Israel of violating international law in its treatment of Palestinians, a charge Israel and the United States government disagree with.
It was from Gaza that on Oct. 7, a group of militants from Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian political party designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and other nations, broke through a sophisticated, fortified border and launched a surprise attack.
Fighters reportedly swarmed into Israel using land vehicles, boats and motorized paragliders. Israeli and international media described armed men arriving in multiple towns and indiscriminately killing or capturing civilian men, women and children, as more than 6,000 rockets were launched toward Israel, according to Israeli officials.
As of Friday, the Israeli death toll stood at more than 1,200 people killed and another 3,227 injured, Israel reported.
A bloody attack on a late night music festival where at least 260 people were reportedly killed particularly horrified international observers, as did reports that Hamas had targeted children and babies.
Netanyahu shared photographs he described as “horrifying photos of babies murdered and burned by the Hamas monsters.”
Images like those were on the minds of over a hundred pro-Israel demonstrators in downtown Atlanta Thursday as they waved blue and white Israel flags and waved signs with slogans like “Stand with Israel” and “Free the Hostages.”
Marc Urbach of Alpharetta marches in support of Israel. // Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder
Marc Urbach waved an American flag and carried a sign reading “Israel’s 9/11.” He said he felt compelled to drive from his Alpharetta home to show his support.
“No nation would put up with this, as you would agree,” he said. “No nation would allow its citizens to be murdered. So Israel has to fight back against evil. If you can imagine any of our cities, Austin, any of our southern cities getting 5,000 rockets shot at them, what would be the response from the United States? It would be utter destruction from President Biden, and his administration would destroy the enemy. So that’s what Israel is going to have to do, unfortunately.
“Unfortunately in any war, innocents and civilians are killed,” he added. “That’s just what happens in any war. You know that. So Israel will do its best not to bring that to civilians, but they’re stuck. They’re stuck with Hamas. And until Hamas is rooted out, this will continue.”
Other marchers did not distinguish between Hamas and other Palestinians.
“The world is waking up to see the truth of Palestine,” said one protester who identified himself as Benjamin, an Israeli-born Atlantan, but declined to give his last name. “They’re murderers. They are terrorists. They want to kill us and they want to come for you. It’s all about the Sharia. It’s all about the Khalifa. It’s not about freedom. It’s not about the land. It’s a religious war against the Jewish people, 1939, happening again, 2023, Holocaust for the Jews.”
But the division lines are not perfectly drawn along religious or ethnic lines.
Ari Bee, a Jewish activist, said they have been called a traitor to Judaism for their support of Palestine.
“(Jews) have been harassed and intimidated, we have been kicked out of our homes, and I understand why we are scared and why we believe that Israel makes us safe,” they said. “I don’t agree with that, but I do (understand). People are coming from a place of activation here, and I can just stand for what’s true and hope that other people eventually join us in understanding that all human lives matter, and that $2 billion in U.S. aid to allow Israel to just do whatever it wants to Palestinians is absolutely unacceptable.”
Bee and a few other Palestine supporters crossed paths with the pro-Israel demonstrators on the way to a competing rally.
Atlanta Police, Georgia State Patrol and Georgia State University police officers were gathered downtown en masse and kept the two sides separate, but in a few cases, stragglers from one camp came upon members of the other, sometimes leading to shouted taunts, curses or expletives from both directions.
As Bee spoke with reporters, a young man shouted at them from across the street.
“I don’t know why you have a yarmulke on your head, but you definitely don’t represent us,” he said.
“I understand I don’t represent Israel and Israelis, but I am a Jew,” Bee shouted back.
Demonstrators demand Georgia State University drop its GILEE program. // Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder
Israel and Georgia law enforcement
As blue and white flags of Israel waved near Atlanta’s Woodruff Park, the black, white, green and red flag of Palestine flew a couple blocks away near Georgia State University.
A large crowd of mostly students gathered there to show their support for Palestinians in Gaza, who they feared would be victims of retaliation for Hamas’ attacks on Israel – as of Friday, at least 1,900 people have been killed in Gaza as Israeli air strikes continuously hammer the territory – and to demand their school put an end to a program that encourages partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and Israel.
The Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange, or GILEE, advertises on its website that it provides peer-to-peer training for law enforcement and security professionals “in or from” 23 states and 12 countries.”
A university spokesperson did not respond to a request for more information on the program. The state passed a law in 2011 that limits open records requests about GILEE after a progressive student group began looking for information. Lawmakers said too much openness could put national security at risk.
Pro-Palestine marchers at Georgia State University. // Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder
In June, former GBI Director Mike Register participated in the program, leading a 20-member delegation including 12 Georgia police chiefs and command staff to Israel for two weeks of training with police there.
Reports indicate that one of the Israeli officers who previously trained Georgians was killed in the fighting in the town of Sderot.
“I spent time at the Sderot police station, learning from our Israeli counterparts,” said Georgia Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner John King, a former police officer in Atlanta and police chief in Doraville. “Seeing what happened there makes me sick. It’s heartbreaking, and the terrorists responsible must pay.”
GILEE was founded in 1992 in hopes of preventing a terrorist attack at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and despite its popularity with law enforcement and Georgia’s elected leadership, the program has come under question from student groups who charge it has an anti-Muslim bias.
Pro-Palestine demonstrators at Georgia State University. // Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder
Many of the students gathered on the campus Thursday said they worry Georgia law enforcement officers are learning to oppress vulnerable populations. Some, like senior Graciela Cain, said they fear U.S. departments will take techniques honed on Palestinians and use them against Black populations at home.
“All of our struggles are interconnected, and we just want Georgia State to divest from spending that money on that when they could be spending the money on students,” she said. “I am a student here, it’s my senior year, I’m in the Africana Studies Department. I have students and friends who are single mothers who can barely pay to park on campus, who can barely afford tuition. And this is a state university, and we should be able to come here and not worry about those things.”
The pro-Palestine demonstrators marched through the city chanting slogans like “Free Palestine” and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free,” towards the university building where university president M. Brian Blake’s office was.
The pro-Palestine demonstrators marched through the city chanting slogans like “Free Palestine” and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” a reference to the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea where Israel exists today. They marched toward the university building where university president M. Brian Blake’s office was.
After negotiations with campus police and human resources, Cain entered the building with a professor to deliver a letter to Blake demanding the university pull out of the training program. Cain said she handed the letter off to a representative but is not confident it will be read or considered.
“I don’t think he’s going to look at it or care,” she said. “But the students, I’m glad they came through, made their voices very loud and clear.”
Georgia Recorder Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report.
Ross Williams, before joining the Georgia Recorder, covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.
The Georgia Recorder is an independent, nonprofit news organization that is focused on connecting public policies to stories of the people and communities affected by them. We bring a fresh perspective to coverage of the state’s biggest issues from our office a few blocks from Georgia’s Gold Dome. Our perch might be near the Capitol in downtown Atlanta, but the communities we care about are found in all corners of Georgia, from the mountains of Blue Ridge to the flatlands of Bainbridge.
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