‘Audacious, outrageous’: Gaza protesters slam Greek deportation order

Greece’s government has pledged not to allow protests against Israel to escalate on university campuses as they have in other countries.

A woman shouts slogans during a protest against Israel's military action in Gaza at Syntagma Square, central Athens, Greece, on May 11, 2024
A woman shouts slogans during a protest against Israel's military action in Gaza at Syntagma Square, central Athens, Greece, on May 11, 2024. People protesting at Athens Law School the following Tuesday were arrested [Michael Varaklas/AP]

Athens, Greece – Nine people from the United Kingdom and the European Union member states are facing deportation from Greece days after they took part in a protest in solidarity with Palestine at a Greek university.

A total of 28 people were arrested by Greek police during the protest and encampment at the Athens Law School on May 14 on charges including disturbing the peace, damaging property, trespass as well as violations of the laws on weapons and flares, all of which they deny.

Of those arrested, the nine UK and EU nationals have been designated as “unwanted aliens” and deemed a threat to public order and national security, facing deportation in an unusual move by authorities.

The group of lawyers representing the nine non-Greek protesters say they will challenge the decision to deport them at their trial in Athens set for Tuesday. In a statement, they asked whether the right of free movement of European citizens “only applies to tourists and investors and is suspended in the case of political action, especially if it concerns Palestine”.

According to them, the arrested protesters are currently being held in the Amygdaleza detention centre just outside Athens in “deplorable conditions” and with “no interpreters”.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, the nine non-Greek detainees said they found themselves suddenly at a deportation processing centre having been told they were being moved to another police station for document checks.

They called the decision to deport them “the heftiest punishment” the state could mete out “for the crime” of being inside a university, adding, “This revealingly fragile and audacious reaction of the Greek state still wanes in its outrageousness when considered in the context of the very reason the university was occupied: genocide.”

In response to the recent arrests and protests at the universities, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of the right-wing New Democracy party, which has been in power since 2019, said on the day of the arrests that the authorities would not allow universities to become sites for protest over Israel’s war on Gaza as has been seen in countries around the world.

In 2019, the Mitsotakis government removed decades-old legislation which previously barred security services from entering university campuses. That law had been established in the wake of a decision by the military dictatorship, which was in power from 1967 to 1974, to violently disband a historic student protest against the government by forcing its way through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic in 1973 with a tank. It is estimated that about 24 people died in the ensuing crackdown and the protest is often viewed as a key moment in the eventual downfall of the dictatorship in 1974.

Kyriakos Mitostakis
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomes his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in Jerusalem on October 23, 2023 [Handout: Dimitris Papamitsos/Greek Prime Minister’s Office via Reuters]

A ‘pivot’ to Israel

The detentions and the risk of deportation from Greece come amid a series of similar threats that pro-Palestinian student protesters have faced in other Western nations. In early May, the UK revoked the visa of Dana Abuqamar, a law student at the University of Manchester, over comments she had made at a protest rally last year, which were seen by many as celebrating the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, in which 1,139 people were killed and about 250 others were taken captive. She has said her comments were mischaracterised.

In the United States, where students at universities across the country have led encampments demanding that their schools divest from firms with ties to Israel, suspensions of protesters have left them at risk of potential deportation.

Yet, compared with the UK and the US, Greece has taken a pro-Palestinian stance, said Sotiris Roussos, professor in the political science department at the University of Peloponnese. Greece was among the last European countries to formally recognise Israel as a state, a stance stemming from the country’s reliance on Arab powers in the wake of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Roussos said.

Former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who was in power through most of the 1980s, also enjoyed a close relationship with the former leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat.

However, since the 2000s, Greece has adopted a more pro-Israeli policy, Roussos says. “This strategic shift – you can describe it as a pivot – to Israel is because Greece thought that Israel, Cyprus and Greece could form an alliance in the eastern Mediterranean,” said Roussos.

Mitsotakis, who was re-elected last year, has consistently expressed his support for Israel’s right to defend itself in line with international law and met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem soon after October 7, calling him a “true friend”.

“We stand at this point where this government thinks that if it stands firmly with the Israelis and the Americans, this will increase the defensive capacity of Greece vis-a-vis Turkey,” Roussos said.

However, despite Greece’s current political stance, there appears to be growing support for the Palestinian cause, particularly among Greek youth. “​​You can sense that there is an increase of sympathy for the Palestinians and the Palestinian state,” Roussos said.

Since October 7, there have been protests on the streets of Athens and other parts of Greece in support of Palestine. On May 17, Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister and the general secretary of MeRA25, a left-wing political party, said in a statement that the administrative detention and deportation of the nine non-Greek citizens was “unprecedented” and demanded their release.

The Greek police had not responded to a request for comment by Al Jazeera at the time of publication.

Source: Al Jazeera