Berlin, Germany – In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s attacks on Israel on October 7, a Palestinian flag was painted on a monument near Sonnenallee, commonly known as Berlin’s Arab street, in the southwestern district of Neukoelln. Authorities painted over the flag on the same night.
In contrast, the city’s Brandenburg Gate was lit up the next day in the blue and white colours of the Israeli flag.
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The disparate visual examples have come to represent the fault lines existing in Germany during the latest escalation of violence in the Middle East. Hamas fighters killed more than 1,400 people in Israel. A relentless bombing campaign by Israel on the Gaza Strip since then has killed more than 7,000 Palestinians and flattened entire neighbourhoods.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has committed German support to Israel and promised to prohibit all Hamas activities in the country and target suspected Hamas sympathisers.
Samidoun, known as the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, was banned shortly after the group posted photos online of people allegedly celebrating Hamas’s attacks.
Pro-Palestinian protests in many parts the country as well as Palestinian flags, pro-Palestinian speech and the Palestinian keffiyeh headdress have been banned with schools in Berlin given official permission to do so.
Police violence against protesters has been reported in major German cities such as Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin, where riot police were stationed for days in a row on Sonnenalle as anger against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza spilled out on the streets.
Berlin is home to one of the largest Palestinian diaspora communities in Europe, estimated at 300,000.
Cultural institutions, meanwhile, have reported pressure to cancel events featuring groups critical of the Israeli state while the Frankfurt Book Fair postponed an event set to honour Palestinian writer Adania Shibli for her book A Minor Detail.
Authorities say measures are being taken to protect against public disorder and anti-Semitism. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior told Al Jazeera that while in Germany freedom of opinion and freedom of assembly is allowed, there are clear limits.
“All instruments of assembly law must be used to prevent solidarity demonstrations with the terror of Hamas as early as possible,” the spokesperson said.
Yet pro-Palestinian supporters say this position has led to the crackdown and criminalisation of Palestinians as well as an attack on the rights of whole communities and people across Germany who want to speak out against Israel’s attacks.
“Nobody expected our protest last week to be cancelled as we have been holding them peacefully with police cooperation for years,” Amir Ali, a Palestinian who has been involved in organising protests in Munich, told Al Jazeera. “I was even forbidden to walk inside the city for 24 hours because I was wearing a keffiyeh. There’s a crackdown on all pro-Palestinian voices across Germany, and in my opinion, they don’t want anybody to speak up about the crimes against humanity being committed by the Israeli state.”
Majed Abusalama is a Palestinian political activist based in Berlin with Palestine Speaks, a Palestinian rights group that’s active across Germany. Abusalama has been sharing on social media the losses of his family and friends in Gaza. He said Palestinians are being subjected to racial profiling and being prevented from openly mourning.
“At our demos, we have experienced police racially profiling and the targeting, arrests and detainment of non-white and Palestinian-looking men specifically. That tells a lot about the racist infrastructure that the German police are a part of.”
While the latest measures are particularly stringent, Palestinian supporters have faced restrictions even before October 7. This year, Berlin authorities banned demonstrations to mark 75 years since the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, when most Palestinians were driven from their homes before and after the declaration of the state of Israel.
Sa’ed Atshan, associate professor of peace and conflict studies and anthropology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, said there were a number of reasons why Germany is currently doubling down on this position.
“Part of it is an underlying racism where there’s a hierarchy of humanity whereby Palestinian life is not seen as equal,” Atshan said.
“There’s also an environment of anxiety, fear and xenophobia around refugees from the Middle East that are highly stigmatised within the German landscape,” he added.
German-Israeli art historian and archaeologist Katharina Galor, who with Atshan co-authored The Moral Triangle, a 2020 book that explores the asymmetric relationships between Israelis, Palestinians and Germans in Berlin, said none of this is new.
“It’s very much in line with the German attitude since the 1970s, which is standing with Israel politically in the Middle East and providing support to its military,” said Galor, a professor at Brown University, also in the United States. “Israel’s security and existence is Germany’s ‘Staatsraeson’, or ‘reason of state’.”
That has had consequences for Germany’s Palestinian community and its sympathisers.
“What this has meant is a complete censorship of Palestinian voices. There is a large Palestinian community in Berlin who understand the history and the context of violence who cannot speak because it has not only social consequences. It can have consequences for their lives and survival, including job losses,” she added.
Commentators say the current position is also in line with Germany’s decades-long commitment to atone for the Holocaust. Galor said that while these efforts have been appreciated by Jewish people such as herself who lost family in Nazi concentration camps, there has been little attention in German society to address the Holocaust in relation to the Nakba.
“One of the shocking discoveries we found was that even among educated Germans, there was no knowledge or school education about the Nakba and how these two events are connected,” she said. “Germans for the most part are so concerned with taking responsibility for the Holocaust that what is happening in the Middle East only touches and concerns them if it regards the wellbeing of Jewish citizens.”
What’s also missing, Atshan said, is the recognition that Germany is supporting a behaviour reminiscent of what the country has tried to move on from.
“Unfortunately, while many think that they’ve moved past the ultranationalism, violence and racism of the Nazi regime, they’ve now put themselves in a position in which they are reproducing those patterns with regards to the Israeli state,” Atshan said.
“So it’s incredibly ironic. And for Germany to say that this discussion is not allowed, it’s profoundly anti-democratic.”
Protests to continue
Despite the protest bans, thousands of people took to the streets across Germany – from Berlin to Frankfurt and Cologne – in solidarity with Palestine last weekend, and more protests are planned.
And pressure is mounting on German authorities to end the current crackdown. This past week, 100 Jewish artists, writers and scientists based in Germany signed an open letter appealing for peace and freedom of expression.
Ali says that in Munich, they are exploring legal routes to have the bans overturned. “German and Western governments need to change their attitude because the way they have acted in solidarity with Israel isn’t changing anything. The occupation needs to stop, apartheid needs to stop and Palestinians need to be granted full equal rights for this to completely end.”
Abusalama added: “Palestinians have not given up for 75 years, and a new generation will not forget nor forgive Israel for their crimes nor Germany for their complicity.”
It’s critical, he said, that Palestinians be “allowed to talk about the Palestinian struggle through the Palestinian narrative.”
“I’d like Germany to stand on the right side of history and condemn crimes against humanity and apartheid,” Abusalama said. “Because in my opinion, they have failed history, they have failed the Palestinians and have mobilised their guilt to silence and terrorise Palestinians in their everyday lives.”