Fear, grief, anguish on Berlin’s ‘Arab Street’ as Israel levels Gaza

In a neighbourhood beloved by diaspora communities, tensions rise after alleged police crackdowns on pro-Palestine rallies.

German police observe during a pro-Palestinian demonstration at Berlin's Neukoelln district during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Berlin, Germany, October 11, 2023
German police gather at a pro-Palestinian demonstration on Berlin's Neukoelln district [File: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters]

Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

Berlin, Germany – It is a grey and drizzly mid-morning on Sonnenallee, commonly known as Berlin’s “Arab Street”.

Since late last year, large-scale protests have erupted here, in the German capital’s borough of Neukoelln, and they have allegedly been followed by police crackdowns described by pro-Palestinian demonstrators as shocking and violent.

Locals Francesca Leone, 31, and 27-year-old Lea* have been joining the thousands across Germany taking to the streets regularly since October 7, when the latest escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict began, to call for Palestinian rights and urge Germany to reconsider its unflinching support of Israel.

Lea, who arrived in Germany in 2015 seeking refuge from Syria, said she was arrested at a demonstration recently. She asked Al Jazeera to withhold her real name out of fears her employer might take action against her.

Plus, she said, there have been raids on the homes of pro-Palestinian supporters.

“[Neukoelln] was always a political space for me, a place where a lot of people with a very unstable resident status could live,” she said.

“It was a shock for me to witness such a level of police violence. Authorities were not taking into consideration that this is an area where people are getting news about their family being killed in Gaza, it’s somewhere they want to express their grief and anger.”

She said the recent tensions have changed her “perception as a refugee”, as she alleged a high-level of racial profiling during arrests at the protests.

“Germany was one of the few countries that welcomed us after fleeing a conflict zone but now they are terrorising and criminalising me and many others,” she said.

Leone and Lea first met at the protests and have grown close quickly.

Leone, a Palestinian born in Germany, said the war has affected her life in ways she had not anticipated.

“My personal life has changed completely,” she said. “I was patient at the beginning and waited for people in my friendship and wider circles to show their support. But then it became clear that there were going to be limits to their solidarity.”

She described the support of some left-wing Germans as conditional.

“[They were] saying to me that they wouldn’t go to a demo unless there were conditions in place, such as not walking next to someone chanting ‘From the river to the sea‘ or someone wearing the keffiyeh. Even as they know that I’m Palestinian and that my family had fled from there, it wasn’t enough just to say I stand with Palestine. So I have had to say goodbye to a lot of people.”

Berlin’s police force denied racially profiling protesters, saying officers are trained to adopt a “dialogue-based approach”.

A spokesperson told Al Jazeera that from October 7 until March 5, 112 pro-Palestine events had been held in the state of Berlin.

The Federal Police, Germany’s central criminal investigation agency, said that as of March 11, 1,349 “measures restricting freedom” had taken place nationwide linked to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but did not stipulate whether these measures were at pro-Palestine or pro-Israel events.

Restrictions of freedom are short-term measures, such as briefly holding a protester for questioning before releasing them.

Home to the largest Palestinian diaspora in Europe with a reported 30,000 people, Germany has been one of Israel’s staunchest allies in recent months.

Speaking to people from the Arab-German community along Sonnenallee, there is an atmosphere of fear that thickens the air. Requests for interviews are often declined.

One young man serving at a shop decorated by Palestinian flags and keffiyeh told Al Jazeera that he has been told by his manager not to give media interviews since the German authorities may be keeping a close eye on the shop.

Such a show of visible support for Palestine, he said, means authorities could suspect them of having links to Hamas, which Germany, like the United States, United Kingdom and European Union, has designated a terror group.

Israel has said it wants to crush Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, after the group carried out an attack in southern Israel on October 7, killing at least 1,139 people. Since then, Israel’s campaign in Gaza has killed more than 30,000 people, mostly women and children.

While several countries have warned Israel to ease its offensive, citing the high civilian toll, Germany has remained resolutely by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s side.

Rashid* is an Egyptian who has lived in Berlin for more than a decade and works in a restaurant near to Sonnenallee.

He said it has been difficult to reach work lately.

“The scenes have been terrible, with police arresting and attacking people. I was very scared that the police would also just stop me and accuse me of links to Hamas,” he told Al Jazeera.

He feels grateful for South Africa’s efforts at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Israel, but has little hope the case will have an impact.

“We have seen a new player in this with South Africa and while it did take me by surprise, I can understand because the people of South Africa went through something similar with apartheid,” he said. “But I don’t think it will make any difference because Israel has always ignored international law.

“The belief in Germany is that anything that threatens the existence of Israel is to be fought, and this is why they push away the Palestinian experience.”

Since early October, German authorities have been increasingly accused of trying to silence pro-Palestinian protesters, including those who merely post their support for Gaza in social media messages, prompting backlash.

In the arts sector, an anti-discrimination clause had required applicants for cultural funding in Berlin to abide by an official definition of anti-Semitism. But after critics argued this could restrict legitimate criticism of Israel and 6,000 cultural workers signed an open letter in opposition, the clause was removed in January.

Meanwhile, Oyoun, a prominent cultural centre in Neukoelln, lost state funding after hosting events aimed at raising awareness about the plight of Palestinians.

People of Middle Eastern origin in Neukoelln say they are preparing for a long road ahead.

“It’s a fight that will not end just when the genocide is over, it’s also a fight for our rights at refugees and as immigrants in a country that has a very rich history of fascism,” said Lea. “It’s a big, long process where we need to provide communities and spaces for ourselves, to grief and empower ourselves in order to face this very intense violence and racism.”

“Things may have calmed down on the streets but you still see the fear in people’s eyes when you speak to them,” said Rashid. “People along the street don’t speak that much but you know what they have in their minds and their hearts. This is the time where people from different backgrounds should come together and stand united with the Palestinian people.”

Additional reporting by Mahadi Ahmed, who translated several interviews in this article.

Source: Al Jazeera