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Brussels demonstrations in support of Palestinians, Israel as Middle East violence escalates

A Palestinian woman walks past a building destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City (Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons / No Licence)
06:04 17/05/2021

Around 3,000 people demonstrated on Saturday afternoon in Place de l'Albertine in Brussels to commemorate the Nakba – the "catastrophe" in Arabic – marking the beginning of the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians when Israel was created in May 1948.

Those gathered also denounced the escalation in violence between Israel and Palestine which has seen over 180 people killed and thousands injured over the last few days.

The rally, organised by the Belgian-Palestinian Association (ABP), the Palestinian Democratic Forum in Europe, Palestina Solidariteit, the Charleroi Palestine Platform, the Rally of Arab Democrats in Belgium and the Union of Jewish Progressives of Belgium (UPJB) in particular, took place peacefully, according to police.

The organisers had previously warned on the Facebook page announcing the event that no anti-Semitic remarks would be tolerated. Participants denounced, among other things, evictions and demolitions of houses in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which "have accelerated rapidly in recent months despite the coronavirus crisis."

"These persecutions constitute the crime of apartheid, as many Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organisations point out," the organisers stated. "It is therefore up to Belgium to act to hold those responsible accountable, and to defend the inalienable right of exiled Palestinians to return to their lands."

Tensions began to rise over a week ago after Israel announced the possible expulsion of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, a move which would allow Jewish settlers to move in. The protests against the eviction sparked violence in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, located in the Old City of Jerusalem, and led to a general confrontation between Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas.

The death toll in Gaza continues to rise with reports on Sunday suggesting a total of 181 Palestinians, including at least 52 children and 31 women, have died according to the Palestinian ministry of health. Since the beginning of the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza last week, at least 1,225 have been injured, with the number expected to rise, it said, as paramedics continue to carry out search operations.

More than 2,300 rockets have also been launched by Hamas into Israeli territory since Monday, killing 10 people, including a child and a soldier, and injuring more than 560, according to rescuers.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people gathered in front of the Israeli embassy in Uccle on Sunday to express their support for the country. According to the organisers of the event, 1,000 people took part in the rally. "We want peace between Palestinians and Israelis, but we also want to support Israel, which is under attack again," said Grégory Cosma, one of the organisers. "I didn't expect so many people, so much positive energy in this gathering."

"The goal is to show my friends, my family, all the Israeli people who are now under attack that we think of them here, from our comfortable life in Europe. I have not thought of any political idea, it is only to support the Israeli people. There are not enough initiatives like this because today the Israeli population suffers."

Cosma said that he feared an upsurge in anti-Semitism, something he said is ever-present, because of the escalating violence in the Middle East. "It’s latent but of course what is happening in Israel can have repercussions and may have repercussions in the short and medium term on Jewish communities. And I am very saddened by it."

One demonstrator told reporters: "I am here today because it is very important for me and my friends to support the suffering people of Israel. It is important to remember that Israel is a democratic country that defends itself while the Israeli people are under attack every day."

Many protesters expressed their concern after Saturday’s rally in support of the Palestinians in Brussels. In a video shared on social media, participants of that demonstration are alleged to be singing a slogan considered anti-Semitic.

"We had to be heard in the light of yesterday's demonstration,” said one of the supporters at the pro-Israel rally.  “We're tired of it. I think this is the beginning of a wave of anti-Semitism here in Europe," said another. "Unfortunately, the conflict is not well understood by everyone,” added a third. “We are here to support a state that legitimately defends itself."

"What we have seen here today is a pacifist gathering of people who want to support Israel but also want to support peace," said Israeli ambassador Emmanuel Nahshon.

"Unlike yesterday's Islamo-fascist rally in the heart of Brussels, you will not hear slogans, negative messages or hate speech here. Just a message from people who want peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but who are also ready to support Israel and defend themselves against the attacks of recent days. Israel will continue to attack Hamas installations for as long as necessary, until they are completely destroyed."

The rally lasted just over half an hour. Other demonstrations also took place in Ghent and Antwerp.

Written by Nick Amies