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German police shut down pro-Palestinian conference

April 13, 2024

Police in the German capital, Berlin, have stopped an event expressing solidarity with Palestinians amid the Gaza war. Authorities said they were concerned over potential antisemitic remarks and glorified violence.

Police seen from the back
Police in Berlin broke up a pro-Palestinian conferenceImage: picture alliance/dpa

German police braced for spontaneous protests on Saturday after they shut down what was to have been a three-day conference of pro-Palestinian activists in the German capital.

Police said they feared that one of the speakers at the conference would repeat the kind of antisemitic remarks he has made in the past.

The speaker, who appeared by video link, was named by organizers as Salman Abu Sitta.

He was the author of a January essay that expressed understanding for the Hamas militants who carried out the deadly October 7 raid in Israel that sparked the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the EU, the US and several other Western countries.

What happened at the conference?

Police temporarily switched off power to the venue when Salman Abu Sitta began speaking and later asked some 250 participants to leave the area just two hours into the event.

"A speaker was projected who was subject to a ban on political activity," Berlin police said on social media. "There is a risk that a speaker will repeatedly be shown via video who in the past made antisemitic remarks and glorified violence. For this reason, the gathering was ended and banned on Saturday and Sunday as well."

 According to the news magazine Stern, Salman Abu Sitta is banned from entering Germany.

Another speaker expected to join the conference, British-Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu Sitta, told AP news agency that he was barred from entering Germany on Friday when he arrived at Berlin airport, and told he must return to the UK.   

Authorities worried beforehand

Even ahead of the event, authorities had expressed concern about the views the conference might propagate.

Kai Wegner, the mayor of Berlin, said on X, formerly Twitter, that he found it "intolerable" that the congress was taking place in Berlin. 

"Berlin does not tolerate antisemitism, hatred, and incitement against Jews," he wrote. 

The so-called Palestine Congress was promoted by pro-Palestinian groups, including the DIEM25 party of former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.

Varoufakis said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that the German Interior Ministry banned him from entering Germany or engaging in the conference at all, even via a Zoom video call.    

Activists said the conference aimed to draw attention to what it called Israel's "genocide" in Gaza.

On the congress website, the organizers denounce "Israeli apartheid and genocide" and accuse Germany of complicity.

In January, the International Court of Justice ruled that it was "plausible" that Israel's actions in Gaza could amount to breaches of the UN Genocide Convention.

What did activists say?

"The police violence, like we were some sort of criminals, was unbearable for a democratic country," said Karin de Rigo, a parliamentary candidate for the German branch of DIEM25.

"They not only stormed the stage: They cut the power like we were transmitting violence."

Organizers have said they are considering whether to take legal action.

 Yuval Gal (l-r), Dror Dayan, Wieland Oban, Karin De Rigo and Nadija Samour at the conference
Karin de Rigo (2nd from R) said activists were treated like criminals by policeImage: Joerg Carstensen/dpa/picture alliance

Growing protest

The rising Palestinian death toll in the war in Gaza has sparked growing public opposition in Germany and other Western countries to Israel's offensive against Hamas in response to its raid, in which around 1,200 Israelis were killed and 253 taken hostage.

However, Germany is a staunch supporter of Israel, a stance which in part is linked to Germany's Nazi past and the genocide of Europe's Jews carried out in the 1930s and 1940s. 

This support from the German government has led many protesters, including some Jewish activists, to complain that legitimate expressions of solidarity with Palestinians are being criminalized by authorities wanting to suppress any signs of antisemitism.

Tensions have been increased owing to the large and growing Muslim and Arab population in the country, many members of which identify with the Palestinian cause.

More than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed so far in the Gaza war, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry there.

tj/rc (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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