As Israel's military campaign continued in Gaza, protesters took to the streets of Berlin on Quds Day. Despite widespread fears of violence, opposing rallies supporting the Palestinians and Israelis remained calm.
"Oh no, how embarrassing," the young woman, a small photo of Ayatollah Khomeini pinned to her black scarf, gestured to the man trying to scale a nearby lamppost, clutching the yellow flag of the Lebanese Hezbollah. She raised a carefully manicured eyebrow and sighed to a friend, "Now they'll all think we're radical Islamists."
Her voice was raised for the benefit of the two journalists who were interviewing a woman holding a sign declaring "Islam is Peace." Beside her, a young man's banner read: "Israel is the biggest threat to world peace." Two men were posing in front of a huge picture of Syrian President Basher al-Assad. From the sidelines, two men in inconspicuous leather jackets, looked on. "We're keeping an eye out for guys we know," one said, re-adjusting his earpiece.
It was early afternoon in central Berlin, and several hundred people were milling around in the light rain waiting for the speeches marking the annual Quds Day (Jerusalem Day) to kick off. The event was initiated by Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following the 1979 Islamic revolution to mobilize the masses against Israel and is traditionally held on the last Friday of Ramadan.
In Berlin, the event has in recent years attracted just a few hundred demonstrators. But this year's protests come in the midst of Israel's military campaign against Gaza and a heated debate after demonstrators chanted anti-Jewish slogans during recent pro-Gaza rallies held across the country. Some 1,200 pro-Palestinian demonstrators, including families with children, had gathered for the Quds Day, a police spokesman told DW. The two counter-demonstrations further down Berlin's fancy boutique-lined Kurfürstendamm had attracted some 700 people, waving blue and white Israeli flags.
'Germany's sliding into Anti-Semitism'
"In the last couple of weeks, the whole anti-Israeli discourse in Germany has been sliding into anti-Semitism," a man clutching a small flag told DW. He said he had joined the demonstrations against Quds Day because he was extremely worried. Gesturing to his Jewish skullcap he added: "I've never been worried about wearing a kippa in Berlin, but now I think that maybe it's no longer a good idea." He shrugged and turned back to the crowd, gathered around a stage to listen to a speaker denounce the Quds parade as the "biggest gathering of anti-Semites in Berlin."
Two young men in their early 20s wearing black t-shirts, Hezbollah's yellow symbol printed on the front, shook their heads: Oh no, they were by no means anti-Semites. "We need to oppose any kind of hatred against Jews."
They had come all the way from Düsseldorf, in western Germany, to demonstrate against any kind of oppression in the world. When the event's organizer, Jürgen Grassmann, took to the stage - a small van fitted with booming loudspeakers – he repeatedly asked the demonstrators to refrain from anti-Semitic slogans and violence. “Don't let yourselves be provoked by the Zionists”, he shouted, as the crowds cheered.
Demonstrators told DW that they had been briefed in the busses taking them in Berlin not to use certain phrases and words. In the run-up to the protests, police had made clear that no anti-Jewish chants or calls to violence would be tolerated. Police confiscated one "insulting banner," a spokesman told DW.
As the demonstrators set out, flanked by police vans and police men in riot gear, an elderly woman sidled up. "How can they let them be here," she whispered angrily, pointed to the pro-Israel demonstrators on the other side of the police barricades. Their rhythmic chants of "Free Gaza from Hamas" were drowned out by other side's "Zionists are fascists." She shook her head, then took a step closer. "What Hitler did was right." She nodded, then turned back into the crowd filing down Kurfürstendamm.
Several police men and Quds volunteers moved in quickly to separate pro- and anti-Israel demonstrators, who briefly clashed at an intersection. As police vans moved in to create a barrier, a young man wearing sunglasses, an Israeli flag rolled up in his clenched fist, screamed "Free Gaza from Hamas."
Was he aiming to provoke the other side? Maybe, he shrugged, then grinned, as he turned away to join a brief shouting match with a stocky man, a Hezbollah flag knotted around this head. Several cameramen and photographers took up position to document the brief skirmish. A police spokesman spoke of "frequent clashes," but praised the Quds organizers for complying with the police requirements.
As the demonstrators moved on along Kurfürstendamm, watched by elegant sales assistants staring from their glittering shop windows, several police men started to clear away the barriers. A man, a rain-sodden Israeli flag fastened to his bike's handlebars, looked on. Was he about to go home? He shrugged. "Maybe." He gestured vaguely in the direction of the Quds demonstrators. "Depends what else happens." He grinned.