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‘We Jews are just arrested; Palestinians are beaten’: Protesters in Germany

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German-Israeli activist Iris Hefets was arrested for the first time in Berlin just a few weeks after the start of Israel’s war on Gaza last October – for holding a sign which read, “As a Jew and Israeli, stop the genocide in Gaza”.

That time, the police told Hefets, a 56-year-old psychoanalyst who is a member of the anti-Zionist activist group Jewish Voice for Peace, it was down to a blanket ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

She was released shortly afterwards but says: “I didn’t think I would get detained for that – I was naive it turns out.”

She was arrested a second time on November 10 for “inciting racial hatred” when she held the same sign – her charge was recently dropped. Her third arrest was for a sign warning that “Zionism kills”. Again, she was released soon after but, this time, her sign was confiscated.

Hefets has lodged a complaint with the police to get her sign back, and intends to put it in a future “museum of Palestinian liberation”, she says.

She believes that, for the latter two arrests at least, the decision to detain her was made on the advice of a new special police task force which “is the contact point available for all police forces in connection with the Middle East conflict”, a Berlin police spokesman confirmed to Al Jazeera. The task force was set up on October 30 last year – shortly after Israel’s war on Gaza began.

This “Besondere Aufbauorganisation” (BAO) task force, which is part of the Landeskriminalamt (LKA) – the police intelligence centre – keeps an eye on “left-wing and foreign ideologies”, including communist groups and pro-Palestine groups, the police spokesman confirmed. It issues guidance and instructions to police forces about what phrases and words used by activists may be deemed illegal. For example, the Berlin police spokesman told Al Jazeera that, in Berlin, using the phrase “from the river to the sea” is currently considered a crime.

“The criminal classification of .. slogans is carried out in close consultation with the Berlin public prosecutor’s office,” the Berlin police spokesman said.

Free speech under attack in Germany

Palestinian protesters seem to be bearing the brunt of police crackdowns on protests in Germany – “We Jews are just getting arrested, the Palestinians are being beaten,” Hefets says. One example was the brutal arrest of a hijab-wearing protester at a sit-in in Berlin central station this past weekend, which was captured on video and posted to social media channels.

But Hefets believes her group of Jewish activists is also being specifically targeted at demonstrations because of its Jewish identity.

Last week, Jewish Voice’s bank account was frozen ahead of mid-April’s Palastina Kongres (Palestine Congress) – for “regulatory reasons”, according to the state-owned Berliner Sparkasse bank. The group’s account has been frozen before, in 2019, because of its support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“They [Jewish protesters] get in the way of the narrative of Jews being protected by Germans against Muslims – but when you see Jews marching, then you see it’s not needed,” says Hefets.

Her case was one of the reasons that Germany’s ranking was dropped to “narrowed” in the Civicus Monitor, an annual ranking that measures civic freedoms to protest.

“Germany’s downgrade should be a wake-up call for the country and continent to change course,” said Tara Petrovic, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Civicus Monitor. But there have been many other incidents of heavy-handed policing – or, as critics charge, repression.

Earlier this month, Berlin police raided a 41-year-old woman’s apartment for writing “from the river to the sea” four times on social media. This was reported by police as “usage of anti-constitutional symbols”, the same law that bans displaying the swastika, the symbol of the Nazis.

But this was just one particularly stark example of Germany’s strict policing – or, critics charge, repression – of pro-Palestinian speech.

The legality of the phrase, “from the river to the sea”, has been interpreted differently across Germany’s federal states. A court in the central state of Hesse ruled in late March that an event named “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free for Everyone” could go ahead, on the basis that the phrase could have many different meanings.

However, in mid-November, the phrase was banned by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, which considered it a call to destroy Israel and said it should be regarded as a slogan of Hamas, which has been formally labelled a terrorist organisation in Germany.

In November, the phrase was banned in Bavaria where public prosecutors said they considered the phrase to be supportive of Hamas and should be subject to the same law that bans showing the Nazi swastika.

Germany protest
A protester gestures during a pro-Palestinian demonstration, amid the ongoing war on Gaza, in Berlin, Germany, December 2, 2023 [Lisi Niesner/Reuters]

A ‘very dangerous restriction on expression’

Germany’s capital city, Berlin, which is home to the largest Palestinian community (estimated at 300,000) in Europe, has been a particular flashpoint for clashes between demonstrators and police.

Prosecutors have registered 2,140 possible criminal cases and launched more than 380 investigations between October 7, 2023 and mid-February 2024.

Recent arrests amount to an “almost unprecedented” crackdown on freedom of speech since October 7, according to Berlin-based migration and criminal lawyer Alexander Gorski. He warned that laws which were originally designed to combat hate speech in Germany are now fast approaching a “very dangerous restriction of expression which could set a precedent which severely limits the freedom of expression in this country”.

In one case in December, seven residential and business properties were raided by 170 police officers a statement was posted on Instagram by feminist collective Zora expressing support for “all revolutionary Palestinian freedom fighters” including the PFLP (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), which has been categorised as a terrorist group by the EU since 2002 – as a “progressive force”. Investigations are ongoing.

“Germany rightfully decided that there should be restrictions on political speech after the second world war, but some of the laws which should protect democracy are narrowing down the political discourse around Palestine and Israel,” Gorski said.

Since October 7, this has led to “absurd” situations such as “Jewish activists being detained for alleging Israel is committing a genocide”, he added.

German protester
An example of one of the protest signs which has caused protesters to be arrested in Germany [Courtesy of Mariam Joumaa]

Another German-Israeli member of Jewish Voice for Peace in the Middle East, a female software developer in her mid-50s who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, was detained by five police officers for holding up a sign “Another Jew for a Free Palestine” after coming to Berlin for a number of protests in February.

The activist said police told her that the sign’s combination of a Jewish flag in Palestinian colours could be understood as “a call to destroy Israel”.

“When they first surrounded me – this still haunts me at night,” the activist said, adding that the experience had made her question her decision to move here. “The police want to frame it all as hate speech, but what we are saying is freedom.”

Chatham House fellow and Germanist Hans Kundani described the country’s “Zionist McCarthyism” for its zeal in cancelling or prosecuting those who criticise Israel or its response to October 7 in an essay titled Zionism uber alles (“Zionism above all”).

Despite lukewarm public support for the war on Gaza –  69 percent of German citizens responding to a poll by broadcaster ZDF said Israel’s military actions in Gaza were unjustified in late March – lawmakers have continued to support it unwaveringly. “What has emerged in the last decade is not so much a post-Zionist Germany as a hyper-Zionist Germany,” Kundani wrote.

Despite demographic change, he added, “German elites have doubled down on their commitment to Israel” partly because “they fear their understanding of the lessons of the Nazi past is no longer widely shared, and they want to make it non-negotiable before it is too late.”

‘Someone grabbed my face from behind – it was the police’

Palestinian activist Ola Alzayat attended a protest in February and explains that, being pregnant, she took special care to stay out of trouble.

Suddenly, “somebody grabbed my face from behind. I didn’t know what was going on”, she says.

It was the police. In a video of the incident which has been seen by Al Jazeera, a visibly pregnant Alzayat can be seen being dragged away by the neck, with her keffiyeh pulled from her neck to her face. She is screaming: “I’m pregnant, please, please!”

Alzayat says that officers slapped her face when she tried to move, leaving her with bruising. They initially accused her of trying to “prevent an arrest”, later adding another accusation of hitting police officers with a flag, even though she claims not to have even had a flag with her.

She says she was carried by five officers and put into a police car, from which she saw her husband being arrested as well. Though the charge of preventing an arrest was dropped, she says investigations continue over the allegations that she assaulted a police officer.

Stella Maris
Stella Maris being arrested at an anticolonial demonstration in Germany [Courtesy of Andrés Trujillo]

Artist and activist Stella Meris has been arrested three times since October 7. At an anticolonial demonstration that she took part in, she said the police declared that Palestine had “nothing to do with colonialism” and so Palestinian flags were banned.

“They arrested me and tried to tackle me to the floor just for wearing a Palestinian flag,” she says. “They said it was the same as the swastika, an illegal symbol I could never show in a public space.”

At another demonstration, Meris was holding a sign which read “from the river to the sea, we demand equality”. After leaving, she went to a nearby metro station, where she says about 15 police officers were looking for her. She was arrested on charges of inciting racial hatred. “At that time I didn’t know that the slogan was in the process of being criminalised,” she says.

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North Korea conducts test on new ‘super-large warhead’: State media

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Pyongyang says new warhead designed for cruise missiles, adding that a new anti-aircraft rocket was also tested.

North Korea has conducted a test on a “super-large warhead” designed for a strategic cruise missile, state media reports, adding that it also launched a new type of anti-aircraft missile.

“The DPRK Missile Administration has conducted a power test of a super-large warhead designed for ‘Hwasal-1 Ra-3’ strategic cruise missile”, KCNA news agency reported on Saturday, referring to North Korea by an abbreviation for its official name – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea also carried out a test launch on Friday afternoon of a “Pyoljji-1-2”, which state media said was a “new-type anti-aircraft missile”.

KCNA added that “a certain goal was attained” through the test without providing further details.

The weapons tests were part of the “regular activities of the administration and its affiliated defence science institutes”, KCNA reported, referencing the operation of “new-type weapon systems”.

The tests “had nothing to do with the surrounding situation”, KCNA added, but did not give any further information.

In early April, North Korea said it had tested a new medium-to-long-range solid-fuel hypersonic missile, with state media sharing a video of it being launched as leader Kim Jong Un looked on.

Cruise missiles are among a growing collection of North Korean weapons designed to overwhelm regional missile defences. They supplement the North’s vast arsenal of ballistic missiles, including intercontinental variants, which are said to be aimed at the continental United States.

Analysts say anti-aircraft missile technology is an area where North Korea could benefit from its deepening military cooperation with Russia, as the two countries align in the face of their separate, intensifying confrontations with the US.

The US and South Korea have accused the North of providing artillery shells and other equipment to Russia to help extend its warfighting ability in Ukraine.

Since its second nuclear test in 2009, Pyongyang has been under heavy international sanctions, but the development of its nuclear and weapons programmes has continued unabated.

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Al Jazeera and news agencies

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Ecuador weighs security, international arbitration in latest referendum

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Quito, Ecuador – He was elected president at a time of crisis, as Ecuador’s murder rate skyrocketed and gang violence seeped across the country.

Now, Ecuadorian leader Daniel Noboa is taking a plan of action to the voters, with an 11-part referendum on Sunday.

The referendum includes a wide range of proposals, from the militarisation of Ecuador’s police to tougher punishments for crimes like drug trafficking, murder and money laundering.

But Sunday’s vote is set to go beyond beefed-up security practices. One question, for example, aims to reform the judiciary system. Another considers whether arbitration should be the default approach to settling international financial disputes.

Noboa has been pushing for Ecuadorians to vote in favour of all 11 ballot measures, in an effort to streamline the economy and stamp out gang violence.

“Voting yes will strengthen our laws and leave no opportunities for those criminals who wish to joke with our justice [system] with the help of corrupt lawmen,” Noboa said in a public event on Monday.

But the broad nature of the proposals has prompted concern, with critics wondering what the consequences could be for human rights, the economy and efforts to stabilise Ecuador’s security situation.

Some have even questioned whether the referendum reflects a shift towards the “mano dura” or “iron fist” policies popular in countries like El Salvador, where human rights organisations have warned of false imprisonment and a lack of due process.

Daniel Noboa speaks into a microphone.
Daniel Noboa has made the national security referendum a goal of his presidency [Dolores Ochoa/AP Photo]

Limited opposition

Still, only one major political group in the country has consistently called for Ecuadorians to vote “no” on all 11 ballot measures: the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).

The group has accused the government of exploiting the referendum to further Noboa’s political ambitions, as the country approaches its 2025 general election.

Noboa — a 36-year-old politician and heir to a banana industry fortune — was sworn in last November to serve an abbreviated 18-month term, after the departure of embattled President Guillermo Lasso. But he is widely expected to run for a full term in the next race.

In a virtual forum on April 11, CONAIE president Leonidas Iza called the referendum a chance for Noboa to rally support.

“The government needs to consolidate its strength to impose neoliberal policies,” Iza said.

Referendums, he added, are costly to organise, and he called for the policies to instead be considered in Ecuador’s National Assembly.

Another CONAIE leader, Agustin Cachipuendo, was later quoted in the newspaper El Universo as saying any repercussions from the vote would disproportionately fall on marginalised groups.

“This government does not know poverty [but] makes decisions that affect the poor,” he said.

Soldiers in fatigues and combat gear walk through fields in rural Ecuador.
Soldiers patrol during a presidential visit to dairy farms in Poalo, Ecuador, on March 21 [Dolores Ochoa/AP Photo]

Rallying public support

Nevertheless, the referendum enjoys relatively broad public support. According to the research institute Comunicaliza, 42.7 percent of voters plan to back Noboa’s proposals.

Still, another 27.5 percent said they have not made up their minds yet.

Maria, a 48-year-old resident of Guayaquil who asked to use a pseudonym for her safety, is among those supporting the president’s measures to tighten security in the country.

Her city has been at the forefront of the crisis. In January, for instance, a criminal group stormed a local TV station during a live broadcast and held employees at gunpoint, generating international outcry.

Maria explained she had been targeted by a criminal group herself: They blackmailed her by threatening her children. But she said she feels safer thanks to the state of emergency Noboa imposed in January, which allowed the military to be deployed to city streets.

“Policemen and soldiers have been patrolling the borough in these months, so we can finally sleep tight at night,” Maria told Al Jazeera.

She credits the soldiers with curbing the violence in her neighbourhood. The referendum could pave the way for the military to have a permanent role in policing, something Maria hopes will happen.

“If they will leave us, what happens then? This is what everyone is worried about,” she said.

A soldier stands in shadow in front of a row of orange-clad prisoners.
A soldier guards cell block 3 of the militarised Litoral prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on February 9 [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

Searching for a permanent fix

Noboa’s government has argued that the referendum is a necessary step to curb the wave of violence that has rattled the country since 2018.

Declaring a state of emergency, officials argue, is only a temporary solution.

“The general purpose of the [referendum] is to establish some permanent mechanisms, breaking the cycle of enacting emergency decrees and then going back to business as usual,” said the government spokesperson Roberto Izurieta in an interview with local television station Teleamazonas.

The state of emergency granted the government additional powers, allowing officials to impose a curfew and take stronger action against gangs.

Under the state of emergency, for instance, Noboa’s government labelled 22 criminal groups as “terrorist” organisations, clearing the way for the police and military to focus extra resources towards combatting them.

Security forces also seized 77 tonnes of drugs and detained 18,736 people, 300 of whom have since been accused of terrorism. According to the authorities, violent deaths have reduced by 26 percent since Noboa took office.

But in early April, the state of emergency came to an end. Ferdinando Carrion, a security expert, believes some of the reforms in the referendum could help Noboa to continue his campaign against the violence, but more structural reforms are needed.

“They achieved good results in the first two months,” Carrion said of the government’s state of emergency. “But it looks like the effect has been exhausted.”

He pointed to Ecuador’s prison system as a particular area of vulnerability. Investigations have shown that criminal organisations use prisons as spaces through which they can run their operations.

But under the state of emergency, the military was allowed to intervene. Carrion said that produced positive results.

“They intervened in 18 prisons out of 36, managing to sever [the gang leaders’] relations with the outside,” Carrion explained.

“But the minute the army leaves the prisons and gives them back to the national service SNAI, they will return to business as usual, since it has shown problems of efficiency, corruption and collusion.”

Carrion would like to see even greater reforms to government agencies like SNAI, beyond what is on the ballot on Sunday.

“Strengthening our institutions is paramount,” he told Al Jazeera, calling for the creation of a new body to replace SNAI.

A tank sits in front of a Guayaquil prison
The Ecuadorian government has deployed the military to control prisons like the one in Guayaquil [Santiago Arcos/Reuters]

Elections in the crosshairs

Still, some analysts question the efficacy of the referendum, even if it is successful.

Carla Alvarez, a professor studying security at the National Institute for Higher Studies, believes that the referendum will fall short of addressing the country’s gang crisis.

“No query made for public consultation will damage the structure of criminal organisations,” she told Al Jazeera.

She echoed concerns that the referendum has done more to bolster Noboa’s public image than to address the roots of crime in Ecuador.

Many experts trace the rise in the violence to Ecuador’s strategic location between the two largest cocaine producers in the world, Colombia and Peru.

They also point out that Ecuador’s economy was significantly weakened during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving unemployed youth vulnerable to gang recruitment.

But Alvarez said Noboa’s emphasis on holding the referendum is also motivated by his future ambitions. “This vote is happening in the middle of an electoral race. And this allows the president to revive his image on social media and achieve more visibility.”

The security situation has a direct impact on the integrity of Ecuador’s democracy. In the lead-up to the snap election last August, a presidential candidate running on an anticorruption platform was gunned down outside of a rally.

And in recent months, politicians have continued to be targets of the spike in violence.

Five mayors have been shot dead since the year began, the most recent murder unfolding on Friday, just days before Sunday’s vote.

The slain mayor, Jorge Maldonado of Portovelo, was the third to be killed in less than a month. His death followed that of Mayor Brigitte Garcia of San Vicente and Mayor Jose Sanchez of Camilo Ponce Enriquez.

Suspects kneel in front of armed police officers. In front of them is a blue table with guns arrayed as evidence.
Suspects and weapons are displayed for reporters at a police station in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on January 11, shortly after a TV station was stormed during a live broadcast [Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]

Chance of a split vote

Critics like Alvarez underscore that referendums are no silver bullet to the security crisis.

Rather, they are a relatively common political tool. Since 2006, Ecuadorians have been asked to express their will through referendums nine times, on issues ranging from oil exploration to presidential term limits.

Paulina Recalde, director of pollster Perfiles de Opinion, also questions whether Sunday’s referendum will create the groundswell of support Noboa seeks.

While Noboa is angling for approval on all 11 items, Recalde’s research suggests that voters will not unanimously back all the proposals.

“Since the very beginning, we never found an overall majority. People won’t vote the same in all the 11 queries,” she said.

Recalde also said there was confusion over the vote. According to her research, 68 percent of respondents knew little or nothing about the referendum a month ago.

She added that the power outages Ecuador is currently experiencing — as well as a controversial police raid on Mexico’s embassy in Quito — could dent Noboa’s popularity, regardless of the vote’s outcome.

“If people vote yes to expand the role of the military, does it mean that they are providing strong support for the president? I would say no,” she said.

An armed soldier in a helmet stands guard on a Quito city street.
A member of Ecuador’s security forces stands guard outside the Ministry of Energy and Mines in Quito, Ecuador, on April 16 [Karen Toro/Reuters]

Arbitration on the ballot

One of the most controversial ballot measures in Sunday’s referendum asks Ecuadorians to implement a system of “international arbitration” to resolve conflicts between the state and private foreign investors.

In international arbitration, a third neutral party is used to reach a binding decision that settles any claims.

Supporters of the measure feel arbitration could safeguard foreign investment in Ecuador, thereby boosting the country’s economy.

“In a dollarised economy like Ecuador, we need an increase in strong direct foreign investments aligned with our public policies,” said Eric Vinueza, investment counsellor for the Corporation for the Promotion of Exports and Investments (Corpei) who supports the measure.

But activists have criticised this proposal as a tool to discourage the government from enacting environmental reforms that might disadvantage foreign mining interests and other overseas companies.

With arbitration, foreign investors could file complaints and negotiate settlements behind closed doors, leaving the public no recourse to appeal.

“These are private and unilateral judicial spaces which allow transnational companies to sue the states, where the states are only able to defend themselves,” said Ivonne Ramos, a mining expert at the NGO Accion Ecologica.

In the 2008 constitution, Ecuador prohibited any international agreement that would limit its national sovereignty, including through international arbitration.

Sunday’s referendum would undo that protection. Ramos added that international arbitration could come with steep expenses for taxpayers.

Ecuador already owes $2.9 trillion to foreign companies. It is currently involved in 29 different lawsuits before international tribunals, with half of the complaints related to mining and fossil fuels.

“Three of the eight pending procedures could cost more than another $10 trillion, which is our national budget for education and health for 2024,” Ramos said.

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What’s the solution to the rising tensions between Israel and Iran?

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The United States says it was warned in advance of the Israeli drone strike on Iran.

Iran has shot down Israeli drones in the latest confrontation on Friday.

There have been global calls for restraint – with both East and West fearful of what further conflict could mean for the region and the world.

So, what is the thinking in Iran and Israel? And what is next?

Presenter: Elizabeth Puranam

Guests:

Mohammad Marandi – Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran

Gideon Levy – Columnist for the Haaretz Newspaper

Roxane Farmanfarmaian – Professor of Modern Middle East Politics at the University of Cambridge

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