Germany’s Anti-Palestine Crackdown Has Reached ‘a New Low’

2,500 riot cops shut down 200 activists.

by James Jackson

17 April 2024

Berlin police outside the Palestine Congress. Michael Kuenne/PRESSCOV/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect
Berlin police outside the Palestine Congress. Michael Kuenne/PRESSCOV/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

Germany has reached “a new low” critics say, after a conference for supporters of Palestine was shut down by 2,500 police officers deployed for just 200 attendees.

The Palestine Congress (Palästina Kongress) – a three day pro-Palestine event – was thrown into chaos last week, when its speakers were denied entry to the country. Police shut off the power to interrupt a live stream from a speaker and raided the building making numerous arrests, having banned the final two days of the event citing concerns over potential hate speech.

Entry bans were given to former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, writer Salman Abu Sittah and British-Palestinian surgeon and rector of Glasgow University Ghassan Abu Sittah, who was stopped from entering the country after interrogation that morning.

Amnesty Germany has called for an independent investigation into the “various forms of discrimination” at the conference and “reports of police violence against those protesting its dissolution.” Yanis Varoufakis went further, describing Germany’s behaviour as “fascist”.

Varoufakis’ legal representative Alexander Gorski told Novara Media: “I am 100% convinced that this was totally illegal. What the German state is trying now is completely unprecedented. They are trashing the right to assembly and free speech. They ban people from coming to this country in order to share their opinions”, adding: “I think internationally Germany is embarrassing itself.”

Udi Raz, an Israeli PhD student and activist from Jewish Voice (Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost), an anti-Zionist Jewish group in Germany, was sitting in the audience of the congress when the conference was raided. Raz told Novara Media that a police officer pointing out her kippa, a Jewish hat with watermelon Palestinian solidarity colours, and laughing at it with their colleagues.

When Raz confronted the officer and accused them of antisemitism, she was subsequently arrested and told that this constitutes harassment in Germany. Raz said that another activist was arrested for protesting this arrest as racist.

The legal advisor of the congress Michael Plöse told German news website TAZ that the organisers had been cooperative with the police in the build up to the conference, even offering to submit their speeches for review by prosecutors.

Plöse said that Berlin police claimed it had not told the organisers that their speakers had been banned in advance due to “data protection”.

Matthias Goldmann, a lecturer in international law at EBS University, said: “Preventing former Minister Varoufakis from entering the country is a new low in Germany’s violations of fundamental rights in relation to the October 7 massacre and the war in Gaza.” He described the ban as, “entirely unfounded and out of proportion.”

Goldmann questioned the police’s motives for shutting down the event, saying: “Police actions and official statements display a high degree of confusion and inconsistency, that make one fear their goal was preventing the Palestine Congress from happening by all means for political reasons.”

“Free speech and open debate are at their most important in periods of crisis like today,” he said.

Congress organisers have been subject to increasing pressure in recent months, and had been vilified across German politics and media from left to right. One news headline seen on a news screen on public transport in Berlin even described the event as a “Jew-hater congress”, despite many of the organisers and speakers being Jewish.

The Congress was organised by a broad coalition of Jewish, leftist, and largely secular Palestinian groups, such as Jewish Voice, Varoufakis’ pan-European leftist party MeRA25, and the United Palestinian National Committee (VPNK).

Responding to criticism of the policing, the interior ministry said, “anyone who spreads Islamist propaganda and hatred against Jews must know that such crimes will be prosecuted quickly and consistently”. The ministry refused to comment on Varoufakis’s ban directly.

The widespread, inaccurate usage of the term “Islamism” by German authorities was criticised as “a very blunt attempt at delegitimising opposition” by Hanna Pfeifer, a scholar of Islamism at Goethe University on X. She added that the term was “suggesting a connection to terrorism” that is “insulting the intellect.”

Wieland Hoban, chair of Jewish Voice said: “The anti-Muslim incitement you get these days, it’s hard not to see echoes of antisemitic incitement at different times, with scapegoating and saying they are harmful for our society.”

This characterisation is also being met with increasing scepticism in the media.

At a weekly government press conference on Monday, increasingly perplexed journalists questioned whether Varoufakis or the Jewish Voice group were really Islamists. One reporter asked if the government was worried by the reputational damage done to Germany.

The government disputed this, with a spokesperson saying: “We clearly reject the term ‘repression’. In Germany you can do what the law says, and what isn’t is forbidden. That’s where the authorities become active and that is where the authorities decide in each case.”

Heavy-handed policing

The shutting down of the Palestine Congress is just the latest example of a crackdown on Palestinian solidarity in Germany.

This weekend, another pro Palestinian protest, the “Occupation against the Occupation” camp in front of Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, faced similarly heavy-handed policing. Images of a watermelon kippah-wearing activist being forcefully arrested went viral on social media.

The activist, who gave his name only as David, told Novara Media police did not give him access to a lawyer or even let him go to the bathroom for multiple hours despite his requests. “I feel anxious, stressed and unable to eat or sleep properly since,” he added.

Jara Nassar, a protest camp organiser, said that police had been “really violent and very arbitrary”. She said that police told activists that they could not publicly speak any languages other than English and German in order to prevent antisemitic slogans being used. This led to a confrontation with police when Muslims were praying in Arabic during Ramadan.

Berlin police did not respond to a request for comment.

Backlash

The German state’s policing of pro- Palestinian events has been met with an increasing political backlash, domestically and across the world, with protests outside German diplomatic institutions in Ireland and the US. Jewish former ANC politician Andrew Feinstein has branded Abu Ghassan’s ban as “fascist behaviour”.

Meanwhile, dissenting voices within German society have become louder as the country is charged by Nicaragua for supporting genocide by selling weapons to Israel at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

Earlier this month, civil servants demanded an “immediate” end to arms supplies to Israel and over 250 scientists and academics signed a public letter stating that: “Germany has become a bystander, if not an accomplice, to what by many accounts amount to war crimes against the Palestinian population in Gaza.”

“The strategy of unconditional support to Israel has failed and it is now time to change course,” the letter said.

James Jackson is a freelance journalist based in Germany. 

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