Inside Germany's Orwellian crackdown on Palestine Congress

The German police shut down a pro-Palestinian conference in Berlin, citing the risk that one of the speakers invited might make anti-Semitic comments or incite violence. Screenshot from a New York Times video. Fair use.

This article was originally published in the New Arab on April 16, 2024. It was written by Dima Hamdan, a Palestinian journalist based in Berlin. She is the manager of the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network. The article is republished in Global Voices as part of a content partnership agreement. 

It was supposed to be a three-day major event where grassroots activists and leading figures advocating for justice for Palestine — from Ghassan Abu Sitta, to Yanis Varoufakis and Noura Erekat — would come together in a defiant show of force. A European-wide collective of more than 54 groups and movements wanting to create a joint movement to hold Israel to account, and Germany for its complicity in the war on Gaza. 

But everyone attending the event had a premonition that the Palestine Congress may not be held at all. 

So anticipated was the German state response, with hundreds of police officers deployed to shut down the venue last Friday, that participants could only react with stoicism and disdain.  

“As a Palestinian living in Germany for many years, and whose home has been raided many times by the police, I’m not at all surprised,” said Salah Seed of the organisation Palestinians and Allies. “This is a desperate attempt of the government to shut down any solidarity with Palestine but we will not be silenced.” 

Germany is nervous, and with a legal team arguing its case against allegations by Nicaragua of complicity in Israel’s war crimes on Gaza at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the state was not going to tolerate a gathering of its staunchest critics in the heart of its capital. 

Ghassan Abu Sitta, a renowned British–Palestinian surgeon and now rector of the University of Glasgow, was denied entry into Germany and banned from addressing the congress, not even via video-conferencing. Abu Sitta is a key eyewitness to Israel’s war crimes in Gaza where he spent October and November volunteering to provide medical assistance.

Pressure had been mounting on one of the organizers,  Jewish Voices, well before the event had taken place. Their bank account was blocked in March, forcing them to look for alternative ways to raise the funds needed to hold the event. Key politicians, including parliamentary group leader Dirk Stettner of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), demanded that the government do everything possible to shut down the gathering.  

At a press conference on Friday, Wieland Hoban, chairman of Jewish Voices, looked visibly drained. The press contingent was clearly split between German and non-German journalists. The first group fired off familiar questions: Do you support Hamas? Do you recognise Israel’s right to exist? Are you an anti-Semite? He was relieved when a Danish journalist asked him how he felt, as a Jew, about being accused of anti-Semitism. 

“It is especially inappropriate when we have members whose families were persecuted by the Nazis,” he said. “The descendants of those Holocaust survivors have come back to Germany, and [find] people who claim that in order to deal with German guilt for the Holocaust, one has to slander these people. If one considers this rationally, then it speaks for itself.” 

Death knell of German democracy?

Tickets for the highly anticipated event were sold out weeks in advance. More than 800 people queued up outside the venue, but were met with at least 200 police officers who declared that only 250 individuals would be allowed into the building, including the organisers and the press. The pretext was that the space was too small to hold such a large number. It was in fact small, but the organisers say they struggled to find a venue that would be brave enough to host them. 

Inside the venue, journalists patiently waited for the attendees to be allowed in. By 2:30 p.m., when the conference was scheduled to start, the room was still half empty, with individuals chanting outside demanding to be allowed in. At the back of the room, police blocked off one part with red tape. Then, through the back door, another group of journalists was ushered in. They were members of the German media, and not on the organizers’ list of accredited journalists. The organizers did not invite them because they were perceived to be hostile to the event, but the police decided to let them in, without the organizers’ knowledge, and count them as part of the 250 individuals allowed into the room.  

Well into the afternoon, the event was finally allowed to start, but with more than half of the seats empty.  

Heba Jamal, a Palestinian journalist and activist, delivered a powerful statement about her experience with police repression in Germany and losing family members in Gaza. But, within less than 30 seconds of playing a recorded statement by Palestinian historian Salman Abu Sitta, scores of policemen stormed the room and cut off the electricity.

For more than one hour, no one understood what was happening. Police told the organisers that Palestinian author Salman Abu Sittah was not allowed to address an audience in Germany because he is a “controversial” figure. Then they demanded to watch his recorded statement and assess, word for word, if he says anything that “glorifies violence” against Israel. Finally, they told the crowd that the event had been cancelled, and ordered them to leave.  

German police spokesperson, Anja Dierschke, claimed to RBB there was “a perceived danger that in the next three days, this [event] could lead to the public use of phrases that glorify violence, deny the Holocaust or are anti-Semitic.” 

To date, the organisers say neither the police nor the state prosecutor communicated with them officially to confirm the legal grounds for banning the congress.  

“This behaviour is unlawful,” said Nadija Samour, a German–Palestinian lawyer who initiated a lawsuit against the German federal government for aiding and abetting the war in Gaza. 

“They couldn’t ban the event in advance because we followed all legal procedures and shared the list of speakers with them. Had they tried to ban it before it was held, we would have had some legal remedies.” 

The organisers are now looking into legal steps to contest the decision to shut down the event. 

On Saturday, the Palestine Congress called for a demonstration to protest the ban. The impromptu invitation was RSVPed by at least two thousand individuals. “They wanted to ban a few hundred people from attending the event, and as a result thousands showed up on the streets,” said one demonstrator who asked not to be named. 

On Sunday, the congress decided to get back on track and live stream its sessions with legal scholar Noura Erekat, Jamila Hamadaqa, and German–Palestinian activist Abdallah Abdelhadi. Given that the event, to date, has not been ‘officially’ banned, the organizers seem to be trying to push the boundaries to see how far the state will go in its attempts to silence them.

The events of the last weekend seem to go against a growing sentiment within the German population against the war in Gaza, with 69 percent in a recent poll saying the Israeli war is unjustified. But poll statistics rarely seem to translate into real action on the ground. This, according to some of the participants in the Congress, needs to change. 

After publishing the speech he was meant to deliver to the congress on his blog, Greek economist and co-founder of diem25 Yanis Varoufakis was informed by the German Interior Ministry that he was banned from entering Germany or addressing the public in person or online. In a tweet on Saturday, he addressed the German public about this. 

“This is the death knell to the prospects of democracy in the Federal Republic of Germany,” he said. “Look at the speech and tell me if I’m wrong.” 

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