Palestinians in Germany fear new level of repression after Nakba Day crackdown

Hebh Jamal

+972 Magazine  /  May 21, 2022

Claiming to fight antisemitism, Berlin police arrested 170 people for carrying flags and keffiyehs during a flash mob marking Palestinians’ mass expulsion.

On May 12, days before Palestinians around the world marked the anniversary of the Nakba, Berlin police issued a blanket ban on all Palestinian protests and events slated to take place in the city over that coming weekend, deeming them “potentially antisemitic.”

Despite the ban, pro-Palestinian activists in Berlin, a city with a large Palestinian and Arab community, insisted on showing solidarity and commemorating the 1948 expulsion and ongoing denial of return to their homeland of over 700,000 Palestinians. By the end of the day, the city’s police had detained over 170 protestors and bystanders who came out to mark the Palestinian catastrophe.

The ban — which was appealed by two Palestinian groups, PalestineSpeaks and Samidoun, and upheld by the administrative court on the grounds they posed an “immediate risk” of antisemitic violence — came alongside the separate barring of a vigil in memory of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who eyewitnesses say was killed by Israeli snipers last week as she covered a military raid on Jenin Refugee Camp. The gathering was organized by Jüdische Stimme, a German-Jewish group that stands in solidarity with Palestine.

One group of Palestine activists opted for a Nakba Day flash mob in Hermannplatz, a town square in Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood. Within five minutes, the group was met with intense police presence and was ultimately broken up. After the participants were kettled in an attempt to control the crowd, police then strode across the square to make arrests, often using force.

The flash mob, which involved a small group of people with their fists in the air, was preceded by a protest against climate change. Activists who were at the scene told +972 that some of the detained protesters had been there to take part in the first demonstration, during which they held Palestinian flags and wore keffiyehs.

Eyewitnesses told +972 that police were targeting Arabs and people of color, even if they were not part of the flash mob. “One guy just had a Palestinian flag on him when the police came out of nowhere and told him he was not allowed to carry it,” said one bystander who preferred to remain anonymous. “The police told us that two people holding flags counts as a demonstration and warrants arrests.”

Another man was arrested for shouting “free Palestine,” while yet another was arrested for wearing a keffiyeh. “Their method seemed to be arresting anyone who might be pro-Palestinian or just looked Arab,” the eyewitness said. Over 1,100 police officers were deployed in Berlin on Sunday, with some even being reportedly sent in to the city from other states for backup.

Ramsy Kilani, an activist with the German left-wing Die Linke party, was one the protesters detained on Sunday. He said was grabbed by a police officer who dragged him into the kettle for more than an hour in hot weather. “I now have bruises all over my arm, and when I asked why we were being abducted for no reason the policeman did not answer or give me a reason,” Kilani said.

Kilani, whose father, five of his half-siblings, and his step-mother were all killed when Israel bombed their home during the 2014 Gaza war, stressed that the activists were not staging a demonstration. “We upheld the law and simply looked for an alternative for people to just wear the colors of the Palestinian flags, or even bring a watermelon [one of the symbols of Palestinian identity] as an act of solidarity,” he said.

Majed Abusalama, a Palestinian political activist and co-founder of Palestine Speaks, an anti-racist Palestinian-led movement that fights for Palestinian rights and against racism across Germany, was also forcibly detained at the protest. Abusalama says he was approached by officers and asked why he was wearing a keffiyeh. Suddenly and without warning, he said, the police attacked him by twisting his arm. “It was crazy. They used so much force and nearly dislocated my shoulder. I had to be hospitalized,” Abusalama told +972.

After being thrown into a police van, Abusalama was asked by the police whether he worked for Hamas and Hezbollah. “This is unacceptable,” Abusalama said. “These prejudices are used against our struggle and function to discredit us.”

Christine Buchholz, a former member of the Bundestag for Die Linke, was also detained. She expressed shock at the police’s actions: “It was ridiculous. People just took a quick photo, [it was] a little flash mob of two minutes that they were going to post on social media later. When we moved away from the square we were boxed in for an hour. We were photographed like criminals and had our personal details taken. We were told we would be prosecuted for an administrative offense — for no reason.”

Martin Dams, the Berlin police spokesperson, told +972 that “due to the chanting, the clothing, the raising of the fist and the distribution of topic-related flyers, this gathering was assigned to the forbidden demos and thus represented a substitute assembly, which was also forbidden.” When asked about the police’s use of force and tactics against innocent bystanders, Dams answered that “in order to enforce the ban on assembly, the use of direct coercion in the form of pushing and it was necessary in individual cases.”

Dams claimed that while officers were aware that the organizers simply wanted to hold a flash mob for the purposes of taking photos, they needed to enforce the law, even if it included kettling participants. “In this context, one person’s freedom was restricted in order to establish [the organizers’] identity,” Dams said. 

‘Are Muslims now under suspicion?’

The last years have seen a shrinking space for Palestine advocacy in Germany, where pro-Palestinian speech is almost immediately labeled as antisemitic. Following the passage of the anti-BDS resolution in the German parliament in 2019, federal institutions began deeming all actions that support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement as antisemitic. This has allowed universities, state governments, and public institutions to deny Palestinians the right to free speech and assembly.

Throughout Germany, pro-Palestinian professors are being shunned from academic spaces, journalists are fired for declaring solidarity with Palestinians on social media, and speaking out on Palestine as a student can lead to encounters with the police.

Berlin has become an especially tumultuous place for its 25,000-strong Palestinian community, and activists view this latest incident — an outright ban on demonstrations that impacts tens of thousands of city residents — as an unprecedented denial of a group’s right to assembly.

“It is beyond me how you can forbid people to remember and commemorate their own history, their loss of home and homeland, and their resilient struggle for their right of return,” said Inna Michaeli, a board member of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East — Germany, and a contributor to +972. “When the police denied our request to hold a memorial for Shireen Abu Akleh, it was consistent with the worsening police crackdown we’ve been witnessing since May 2021. Yet now we are definitely seeing a new level of repression.”

Berlin police justified the prohibition due to their assumptions regarding who might attend the protests. The police stated that they expected attendees to comprise “people from the Arab diaspora, especially those with a Palestinian background,” and other “Muslim groups of people, probably from the Lebanese, Turkish and Syrian diaspora.”

According to the police, “experience has shown that this clientele currently has a clearly aggressive attitude and is not averse to violent action.”

On the day of the protest, German attorney Ralf Michaels published an op-ed in the Berliner Zeitung daily in which he raised serious doubts over the reasons given for the prohibition. “Is this ban about the danger of the demonstrations or about the ‘clientele?”‘ he asked. “This raises a suspicion: should the reason for the ban lie in the fact that this clientele is particularly unpleasant for the state? Are Muslims now under general suspicion? And what about the Jewish Israeli participants?”

“The human right to assembly has been turned on its head,” said Ahmed Abed, a lawyer who has previously represented pro-Palestine activists in Germany. “The courts simply accepted that the ‘Palestinian diaspora,’ i.e Turkish and Muslim participants, were perpetrators of violence. They are making generalizations about 400,000 Berliners. The courts were not interested in the fact that it was predominantly Germans and internationals who were present at these demonstrations. This decision from the court and Berlin police is clearly racist.”

Performative anti-antisemitism

While some German politicians claim that demonstrations such as the one set to take place last weekend amount to antisemitism, many Palestinian activists say this is both unreflective of the majority view of the protesters and a form of collective punishment.

“A few people would shout antisemitic chants, which the organizers disagree with and try to shut down,” Abusalama told +972. “Yet shutting down our right to protest is a mechanism of silencing, censoring, and maintaining the status quo where Palestinians in Germany, and in Berlin specifically, are invisible.”

Five of the 170 detainees taken in last Sunday were Jewish activists who came to show their solidarity. “None of us feels exactly protected in such a hostile environment of state repression where our basic rights are violated so easily,” Michaeli said. “Germany is proud of its ‘culture of remembrance culture’ [as it relates to the Holocaust], but it is deeply hypocritical to claim this power position to decide who is allowed to remember and who isn’t. People own their history and identity.”

“What happened on Sunday demonstrates that Germany’s performance of ‘anti-antisemitism’ effectively means anti-Palestinian racism and outlawing everything ‘Palestinian’ — down to the very name,” said Sami Khatib, a Palestinian cultural theorist and philosopher at the Freie Univerity of Berlin, who witnessed the crackdown.

“If [the recent repressions] were really about existing antisemitism, it would have been part of a joint fight against racism,” Khatib continued, “The moment the signifier of Palestine is identified as antisemitic, the fight against antisemitism becomes a state-sponsored program for discrimination and racism.”

That repression has only grown more pronounced in Berlin. On May 15th, the center-right Christian Democratic Union’s parliamentary group in the Abgeordnetenhaus of Berlin, the city-state’s parliament, adopted a 10-point plan calling for preventative detention of “well-known antisemites” in the run-up to pro-Palestinian events in the city.

“Enough words have been exchanged — only concrete measures will help our Jewish fellow citizens,” the position paper stated. The parliamentary group said that their call for preventative detention is both legally secure and that pre-emptive arrests of pro-Palestinian activists would be “predominantly likely” by order of a judge. CDU’s plan also calls for banning BDS events and events against the State of Israel, stating that they violate the public order and that “Israel’s security and right to exist are matters of the German state.”

“The open hatred of Jews on our streets is an attack on liberal and cosmopolitan Berlin,” said CDU Chairman in Berlin Kai Wegner in a recent interview. “Every anti-Jewish incident is one too many, and the recent increase in such occurrences is all the more worrying. Anyone who incites hatred against Jews deserves the full severity of the penal code.”

But not everyone is so convinced the CDU’s plan is has all that much to do with antisemitism. “The conservatives are clamoring to make it easier for the authorities to ban demonstrations,” Die Linke’s Buchholz said. “The criminalization of Palestine solidarity is a door-opener to restrict the right to demonstrate altogether.”

In a statement put out by the European Legal Support Center, the first and only independent organization that legally defends and empowers the Palestinian solidarity movement in Europe, referred to the measures to ban Palestine protests as “blatant, arbitrary and disproportionate limitations of freedoms.” According to the group, the bans also “amount to anti-Palestinian racism, a form of anti-Arab racism that aims to silence, exclude, erase, stereotype, defame or dehumanize Palestinians or their narratives.”

While Berlin officially says it is cracking down on Palestinian protests to combat potential antisemitism, the city has nonetheless allowed demonstrations that invoke neo-Nazi propaganda. In August of last year, 20,000 people rallied outside Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, calling the COVID-19 pandemic a conspiracy theory. The rally, which was supported by neo-Nazi groups and other critics of Germany’s coronavirus policies, reportedly took its “Day of Freedom” slogan from a 1935 documentary by Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. At the time, Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer empathized with the protestors. “Of course, there are always different opinions regarding infringements of basic rights…it’s normal,” he said.

In 2017, 500 neo-Nazis were granted permission to march in commemoration of top Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. At the time, Berlin police stated that they “generally try to balance protestors’ rights to free speech and free assembly.”

Yet even the police’s justification that Nakba Day protests could potentially lead to violence is not applied to many other annual demonstrations, such as the one held on May Day, which commemorates the struggles and gains made by workers and the labor movement worldwide. “The police have to put up with expressions of displeasure,” attorney Michaels wrote in Berliner Zeitung. “The May Day demonstrations in Berlin have been regularly associated with violence for decades… but as far as I know they have never led to a ban on the demonstration.”

Activists believe the German authorities’ repressive measures are a response to the recent outpouring of support for Palestine across the country. Last year, over 15,000 people took to the streets of Berlin to protest Israel’s escalating aggression in Gaza and Jerusalem. More pro-Palestinian groups have sprung up in recent years, and Palestine activists have also marked a string of legal successes against anti-BDS measures. Over the past week, a German-Palestinian academic at the center of smear campaigns by pro-Israel groups was granted the right to gain access to a secret dossier that had been compiled against her.

“Things are changing here,” Abusalama said. “We are reclaiming the city, and the government feels it does not have control over us. Resistance is increasing in this town. The generations before us were completely traumatized and silenced, yet now it is an impressive and inspiring time for us in Germany.”

Kilani agreed. “I’m glad we could manage to bring something visible to the streets when the days before it felt like nothing could be done,” he said. “We were able to mobilize people despite this repression. We have hope.”

Hebh Jamal is a Palestinian-American journalist and advocate currently based in Germany