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16th Congressional debate disrupted by crowd urging for Israel-Hamas ceasefire

Rohan Bhatia

The first debate between nine candidates for the 16th Congressional District was interrupted by members of the crowd, many of whom called for a ceasefire in Gaza. The moderators attempted to continue debate despite continuous interruptions, before the debate was ultimately called off prior to closing statements.

The debate, hosted by Embarcadero Media in Palo Alto City Council’s chambers, proceeded as planned for over an hour, before one crowd member initiated a “Ceasefire now” chant during candidate Sam Liccardo’s speaking time about an unrelated topic, at which point many members of the crowd joined the chant, and the candidates halted debate.

One Palestinian woman in the crowd, who wished to remain anonymous, said she attended the debate to encourage a candidate and the disruption was not organized. 

“We initially came to support Ahmed (Mostafa),” she said. “The goal wasn’t to disrupt debate. People just got into their feelings and couldn’t bear to hear what (the other candidates) were saying.” 

Ahmed Mostafa, the candidate with the strongest advocacy for a ceasefire, said he understands why people were very emotional, but the interruption of the debate was unfortunate.

“Everyone should be heard, and that includes the other people on the debate stage,” Mostafa said. “As we know the right to protest is the fundamental component of a healthy democracy, but when we silence the debate, we forget about other issues. If I were in their shoes, I would want to build allies and I don’t think that was the most effective way to build allies.”

Another candidate and Palo Alto city councilmember Julie Lythcott-Haims said she has a partially Jewish family, and understands the atrocities and emotion on both sides of the conflict.

“I am absolutely gutted by what Hamas did in Israel on October 7th, and I want Hamas to be held accountable” Lythcott-Haims said. “I can also say that I absolutely gutted by what the Netanyahu government has chosen to do in response. The number of children who have been maimed, killed, this is a humanitarian crisis, so I have called for a bilateral humanitarian ceasefire.”

While a majority of the crowd were ceasefire supporters, tensions flared between them and a minority of crowd members brandishing Israeli flags. 

“They were expressing their feelings,” the anonymous woman said. “You could tell by the people screaming and crying that they were very, very hurt. It was a lot to take in.”

Many members of the crowd chanted for several minutes, stopping once Embarcadero Media CEO Adam Dawes threatened to cancel the debate. 

The debate’s moderators, Palo Alto Weekly reporter Gennady Sheyner and Mountain View Voice reporter Zoe Morgan, then attempted to continue the debate, but disruptions persisted for the remaining 30 minutes.

Dawes said the moderators attempted to continue the debate to ensure fairness between all candidates.

“Some candidates hadn’t been able to answer questions,” he said. “We wanted to allow all candidates to provide answers.”

Following the disruption, the moderators asked candidates about their views on the conflict between Israel and Hamas which Dawes said he hoped would quiet the crowd.

“We thought the audience would actually want to hear from the candidates, their views on Palestine and Israel, so we felt it was germane to give the members of the crowd that were passionate about this issue a chance to listen to the candidates,” he said. 

Candidate and current Palo Alto city council member Greg Tanaka said he respects freedom of speech but wishes the proceedings were moderated better. 

The organizers suspended the debate before candidates made closing statements. 

Dawes said, “We did call the event early because the crowd started again, and I didn’t want to start closing statements and have to labor through with the chanting crowd.” 


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Rohan Bhatia, Sports Editor
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  • D

    Dan MFeb 1, 2024 at 3:14 pm

    I attended the debate – there was a substantial group chanting slogans outside the building prior to the event, many of whom joined the disruptive chants and slogans during the debate. It’s difficult not to infer that these were organized. While I support their cause I was there to listen to the candidates – it was not just “Israeli” supporters who requested that they quiet down.

  • J

    JonathanFeb 1, 2024 at 10:59 am

    The protestors were not expressing their feelings and if what the candidates said hurt their feelings, then they are not serious people, nor should they be taken seriously. They booed one candidate just for acknowledging Oct 7th. They are a loud, obnoxious minority.