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County commission won't take action on Israeli bus debate

Published: Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 6:01 p.m.

The Sonoma County Human Rights Commission has refused to take actions called for by activists for Palestinian rights, who say the company that runs Sonoma County Transit buses is complicit in human rights violations by Israel.

The North Coast Coalition for Palestine this week lobbied commissioners to recommend that the county board of supervisors investigate whether Veolia Transportation violates international law by operating bus routes from Israel to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The coalition wants the county to end its $7.35 million annual contract with Veolia when it comes up for renewal in 2014.

Commissioners differed about whether the matter was within their purview and, after a 4½ hour meeting, voted 5-4 not to create a committee to examine that question further.

“I do not believe this is within the jurisdiction of the commission,” said chairwoman Judy Rice, who, when the commissioners deadlocked 4-4, cast the tiebreaking vote.

Gail Jonas, the commissioner who moved that the committee be created, said Thursday the jurisdictional issue was not clear cut. “Even if it's ambiguous, the committee could resolve it by saying there's sufficient leeway. And I think there is.”

She said she sympathizes with coalition aims.

“Veolia provides essential services to the illegal settlements and assists in their ability to continue to be there. I've done my own homework on that,” she said.

Chicago-based Veolia, the subsidiary of a French conglomerate, issued a statement Thursday saying the “hearing was very important to unmask the true, anti-Israel intentions of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement,” known as BDS.

The North Coast coalition is aligned with BDS, which campaigns to isolate Israel economically to force it to change its policies toward Palestinians.

Coalition opponents on Tuesday said the commission should never have taken up an issue involving international politics.

By doing so, it had acted counter to its mission to “promote better human relations among all people in Sonoma County,” said George Gittleman, rabbi of the county's largest synagogue, Shomrei Torah.

“What this did was create a toxic forum for nasty things to be said on both sides with no hope of creating any kind of real dialogue or new understanding from one perspective to the other,” he said.

Coalition members said that while they did not get what they want, they were heartened by the outcome because the support they got from the four commissioners.

“We felt that this was a huge victory because this is a brand new issue to some of these people,” said Lois Pearlman. “To get them to that point, we felt that was a huge victory."

Two new commissioners are to be appointed this month. Pearlman said that might open the door to another effort at that level, or that the coalition may approach county supervisors directly.

“There's no doubt that this effort will continue,” she said.

Gittleman said the coalition's true aim is the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state.

“I don't think it is a credible organization because I don't think they're honest about what their goals are,” he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.)

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