Germany's crackdown on pro-Palestine solidarity
One recent Friday afternoon in Berlin, a handful of far-right activists gathered near Brandenburg Gate. The group of men stood around with bicycles and flags, including some from the so-called Reichsbürger scene, a collection of far-right extremists who pledge allegiance to the German Reich that existed up until 1945.
The red, white, and black German Imperial Flag used by Reichsbürger groups is a well-known hate symbol throughout the country, a kind of unofficial substitute for the banned Swastika.
Numerous so-called Reichsbürgers, who are free to wave the flag virtually whenever they please, have committed terrorist attacks, such as the 2019 assassination of politician Walter Lübcke.
Yet on 15 May, the day after these proud 'citizens of the Reich' enjoyed an afternoon sipping beer under the sun, as more than 1,000 police officers, many bused in from outside Berlin, were sent to patrol the immigrant-heavy neighbourhood of Neukölln, hunting for residents defying a ban on demonstrations of a different kind.
These burly officers, dressed in riot gear, detained or stopped at least 170 people during the afternoon and evening of 15 May, or Nakba Day, which commemorates the 1948 displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by Zionist militias as part of the formation of the state of Israel.
"As police looked on at Hermannplatz, participants in a silent flash mob posed with keffiyehs and their fists raised in the air. Activists say they were then boxed in by police, who began violently detaining those present"
An illegal flag
Days earlier, police had banned a number of pro-Palestine memorials and Nakba demonstrations planned between 13 and 15 May, saying that there was an “immediate danger” of “anti-Semitic chants” and violence towards officers and the public.
Rather than attend their planned protest, between 40 and 50 members of the Palestine Speaks collective gathered at Hermannplatz, a busy square in Neukölln, for a silent vigil.
“After they banned all the demonstrations, we called for a so-called ’Palestinian visibility day’,” said Nizar Haddad, a Palestinian from Gaza and member of Palestine Speaks, to The New Arab.
“It was a spontaneous action without any real coordination, where we asked people to go about their daily activities while wearing Palestinian symbols, like the keffiyeh.”
As police looked on at Hermannplatz, participants in a silent flash mob posed with keffiyehs and their fists raised in the air. Activists say they were then boxed in by police, who began violently detaining those present.
“People were stopped by police just for saying ‘free Palestine’ or wearing a keffiyeh,” said Haddad. “They were difficult scenes.”
Throughout that Sunday, activists say police stopped or detained at least 170 people, a move in line with the blanket ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations that week. Many of those detained were not participants in the photoshoot but bystanders or attendees of the climate change demonstration, Sundays for Future, held beforehand.
One prominent Palestinian rights campaigner, Majed Abusalama, was hospitalised after being apprehended by police for one hour, who he says beat him after he tried to live-stream his arrest.
Collective punishment against Palestinians
Police had forbidden all forms of pro-Palestinian demonstrations for the second time this month, using an amendment to the Assembly Act introduced during the pandemic. The second ban also covered a vigil organised by a pro-Palestine Jewish group for the murdered Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot by an Israeli sniper days before.
Police based the decision on video footage from a pro-Palestine rally in April, in which a teenager is heard yelling an anti-Semitic slur at pro-Israel activists, who were later referred to as journalists in German-language press reports.
Numerous analysts and organisations outside the Palestinian community have spoken out against the police’s actions on Nakba Day.
“Freedom of assembly also applies to Palestinians,” wrote Professor Ralf Michaels, a prominent German legal scholar at the Max Planck Institute.
“An important lesson from National Socialism is that anti-Semitism must be fought resolutely,” Professor Michaels wrote. “But it is also an important lesson that freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are central to a democratic and liberal state.”
"The ban is consistent with what activists say is an increasingly oppressive climate against pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Berlin"
Politicians from Die Linke, or the Left Party, also weighed in, breaking their usual silence over the treatment of Palestinians in Berlin. “The authorities in Berlin are massively restricting freedom of expression and assembly,” wrote the politician Ferat Koçak in a statement.
“The demonstration ban is a scandal,” declared his colleague Christine Buchholz, a fellow politician from the Left Party who attended and photographed the Hermannplatz flashmob.
The global climate movement, Fridays for Future, called the ban an act of repression.
Then, last Friday, following numerous reports in international media, Human Rights Watch issued a statement about Berlin’s ban on Nakba Day gatherings, perhaps the most high-profile condemnation of the police’s actions.
“A preemptive ban on commemorating an event is an extreme restriction that effectively works as a collective punishment,” Human Rights Watch said. “Police should seek to regulate, not ban, demonstrations.”
A hostile environment
The ban is consistent with what activists say is an increasingly oppressive climate against pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Berlin. The increased hostility from the state and pro-Israel media runs parallel to a growing wave of support from throughout German society, from visual arts to various music scenes.
“Last year, we had a demonstration the same weekend with 15,000 participants,” Haddad explained. “They see that there’s a huge wave of solidarity, so they’re trying to stop that by labelling us anti-Semites or even Islamists. Everyone in Palestine Speaks is, in fact, left-wing.”
In denouncing pro-Palestine activism, pro-Israel voices in Germany regularly use racist and Islamophobic language.
Activists stopped by police at Hermannplatz say they were questioned over possible links to Hamas and Hezbollah and, in originally justifying the ban, police pointed to the Arab and Muslim backgrounds of those expected to attend pro-Palestinian rallies.
Between 13 and 15 May, the colours and clothing of a foreign state were effectively criminalised. During those days, Germany and the occupied Palestinian territories were the only places in the world where holding a Palestinian flag was enough to get someone arrested.
These developments shock even Haddad, who’s lived in Germany for almost 20 years. But he’s sure the ban is less about anti-Semitism than it is about suppressing a growing wave of Palestinian solidarity, one that’s spreading further into wider German society - despite the efforts of the German media and authorities.
“Almost all anti-Semitic attacks in Germany are from the right-wing,” Haddad said. “But the Israeli lobby has never demanded a ban of a neo-Nazi movement in Germany. Never.”
And while neo-Nazis and other far-right groups remain free to gather throughout Berlin virtually whenever they want, the city’s pro-Palestinian activists anxiously await their next protest, when their national dress or flag could once again be outlawed.
Matt Unicomb is an Australian journalist based in Berlin. He was previously the online editor of the news, politics and culture magazine Exberliner.
Follow him on Twitter: @MattUnicomb