PARIS – Three weeks after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, the international mobilization for Gaza remains unabated. Rallies were held this weekend in Tel Aviv, London, Berlin, Vienna and New York. But in Paris, the current epicenter of radical anti-Israel protests, large demonstrations meant trouble.
While the temporary truce between Israel and Hamas was still ongoing Saturday, some 4,000, or up to 10,000 pro-Palestinian protesters – according to the estimates by the police and the organizers – gathered on Place de la République, in the French capital, despite the ban imposed on the demonstration by the authorities.
The previous two weekends, thousands of demonstrators attended three similar gathering in the northern Paris Barbès district, and in Sarcelles, a Parisian suburb town dubbed “Little Jerusalem” because of the important Sephradic Jewish community living there.
Serious incidents broke out during these protests, causing dozens of casualties to policemen and rioters. On July 20 in Sarcelles, clashes took place in front of a synagogue and several shops owned by local members of the Jewish community were attacked – including a kosher supermarket and a pharmacy.
Following these recent worrying events, Saturday’s Paris rally was classified “high risks” by the Prefecture of Police. The government called up 2,300 policemen to halt any violence and protect the Jewish properties in the area.
Similar, but authorized, rallies took place concurrently in other French cities. Controversial historian Shlomo Sand attended the protest in Nice where he declared himself “ashamed of being Israeli” in front of a cheerful crowd.
The Parisian gathering was organized by groups and parties such as France’s most important far-left movement, the New Anti-Capitalist Party, the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic, Palestine Generation and Fatah France. Its aim was to “oppose corrupt and hypocritical leaders who stand with Israel and to thwart a colonial project that combines a racist ideology with a lethal technology and whose goal is to neutralize us,” according to the Facebook page of the event.
2 pm, protest begins with multi-national flag waving
The protesters began to arrive in the square around 2 pm, waving French, Palestinian and Arab nations’ flags. Despite the substantial police presence in all the surrounding streets, the atmosphere was at first quite relaxed.
Then, while most of the activists were yelling slogans such as, “We are all Palestinians,” “Resistance, resistance from Paris to Gaza,” “Settlers, Zionists, you are terrorists,” or “Israel murderer, [President] Hollande accomplice,” others started to scream “Allahu Akbar” and slogans in Arabic.
Just before being interrupted by a keffieyh seller explaining the virtues of his goods against possible tear gas, Amine, 35, said that “no Muslim will ever forget the Palestinian people until an end is put to their suffering.”
3:30 pm, getting ready to rumble
The general mood heats up around 3:30 pm, while some militants climbed on the Marianne statue – one of the most important symbols of the French Republic.
Shortly after, a banner “Gaza firm” was deployed. All the young men around it were wearing “K-Soce team” T-shirts for a group of Parisian hooligans known for its radicalism. Some were performing “quenelles” – a part-anti-Semitic, part-obscene hand gesture – and Nazi salutes. The rest of the group was yelling “Palestine, Palestine, Palestine” and clapping in their hands.
At the same time, green, white and red smoke flares were lit, a protestor waved the black banner of Islam and an Israeli flag was set on fire.
Not all protestors were eager for violence. A teenage girl with the words “Boycott Israel: Racist state” on her veil claimed that “these demonstrators have no idea what they are doing.”
“We are here to show our support to the martyrs of Gaza and to ask for peace between Palestinians and Israelis,” she explained. “We are not here to attack Jews or to burn flags of any country.”
Though the organizers had hired a security service to keep order, the men were quickly overwhelmed. As the crowd swelled, police blocked the streets all over the square and ordered families with children to leave.
5 pm, rumors of the Jewish Defense League’s arrival
A bit before 5 pm, a rumor emerged out of the crowd: Some members of the Jewish Defense League – a right-wing Zionist organization well known for its violent methods – were in an adjacent street. A pro-Palestinian militant brags that the police would have to create a barricade to protect the Jewish group supposedly on the other side.
At this point, the first projectiles and firecrackers were thrown toward policemen while one of the organizers took the microphone and asked demonstrators “not to respond to the provocation of the riot police and to keep their composure.”
Few seemed receptive to his request and the security service was suddenly overtaken by the chaos.
The riot police responded quickly by firing tear gas and another stampede took place on the south side of the square. A gas cloud emerged, a bus shelter was broken, more and more stones and glass bottles were thrown at the police and onto storefronts. Journalists who remained in the middle of the crowd were attacked.
Photographer Edouard Elias, who recently returned from Syria after being held as a hostage for 10 months, almost got lynched. A video team from the TV news channel iTélé was robbed of all its equipment, though accompanied by a security guard.
“We target you as if you were Jews!” screamed a rioter at another group of journalists. Some adults tried somehow to calm down the young rioters, with no success.
The clashes continued for nearly an hour and a half, until most of the demonstrators began leaving the square.
6:30 pm, timeout for prayer
Around 6:30 pm, dozens of activists from the Sheikh Ahmed Yassin collective – a pro-Hamas organization – started to pray a few meters from a police barricade.
Interviewed by the Times of Israel on the symbolism of such an act on a square representing all the values of the French Republic, including secularism, a Muslim man simply said that “this prayer must be seen as a request to Allah to protect Palestinians in Gaza.”
The day ended with policemen arresting people and trying to push the ones who remained into the metro station. Another rumor emerged that anti-Semitic protestors might be on their way to rue des Rosiers, in the very heart of the Jewish district.
Police had cordoned off the area and in the end there were no incidents to report – unlike last Wednesday, when dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators tried to attack people there following another pro-Gaza demonstration.
Saturday night, a few hours after the clashes, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that his men had arrested 70 people “some of whom were significantly armed with batons, mortars and brass knuckles.” Twelve police officers were lightly injured.
Sunday afternoon, a rally in support of Israel was held in Marseille in southern France. Between 2,000 and 6,000 people gathered, accompanied by several local politicians.
Though dozens of pro-Palestinian activists tried to disrupt the rally, no incidents were reported.