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In Europe, Free Speech Is Under Threat for Pro-Palestine Protesters

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On Oct. 14, tens of thousands of protesters gathered across the U.K. and Europe to express support for Gaza, where more than 1 million Palestinians have fled their homes since Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel declared a siege in retaliation.

In London, thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered near Oxford Circus, waving Palestinian flags and signs as they called for an end to Israeli airstrikes and blockade in the Gaza Strip. The London Metropolitan Police, which deployed more than 1,000 officers on the ground, warned beforehand that “anyone with a flag in support of Hamas or any other proscribed terrorist organization will be arrested,” and subsequently made 15 arrests.

Despite the risk of arrests, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which helped organize the last march in London, is charging ahead with another march on Saturday, Oct. 21. “The organizers … have been told by the police that they will be issuing restrictions on the demonstrations, as they did last Saturday,” the group stated on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “The explanations given were frankly unconvincing. No attempts by the government or police to undermine the protests will stop us or any of those who want to see an end to the killing in Palestine,” it continued.

The heated exchange is the latest example of how tension is escalating in Europe due to the Israel-Hamas War, with demonstrations coming under the scrutiny of various governments and authorities clamping down on protesters who speak out in support of Palestine.

Read More: The Israel-Hamas War Is Leading to an Uptick in Hate Crimes

“We have seen an unprecedented crackdown on Palestinian activism across the continent,” Anas Mustapha at CAGE, an independent advocacy organization based in the U.K., told TIME in an email. He added that “support for Palestine is being incrementally criminalized.”

The curtailing of expressions of support for Palestinians across the Western world has raised alarms for human rights groups, who say that rather than imposing blanket, preemptive bans, governments have an international obligation to protect freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Esther Major, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Research in Europe, has called on European authorities to protect and facilitate everyone’s right to express themselves and peacefully assemble, stating that the devastating consequences of the war are “understandably compelling many people in Europe to protest for the rights of Palestinians.” 

“Yet, in many European countries, the authorities are unlawfully restricting the right to protest,” Major said.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in London on Oct. 14, 2023.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in London on Oct. 14, 2023. Mark Kerrison—Getty Images

Where have protests in support of Palestinian rights been banned?

Last week, monuments and government buildings across Europe were lit up in blue and white as a show of solidarity with Israel. Tens of thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators took to the streets across cities like Paris, Berlin, Rome, and Madrid to protest against the Israeli government’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza. In Glasgow, huge crowds expressed solidarity with Palestinians, including the parents of First Minister Humza Yousaf, whose family is currently trapped in Gaza. 

But tensions were particularly heated in France and Germany, home to the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in the European Union. In Berlin—which is also home to one of the largest diaspora communities outside the Middle East with an estimated 30,000 Palestinians—the police ramped up security and cracked down on pro-Palestinian groups with full force. Many Palestinians told reporters they felt fearful of being labeled pro-Hamas for speaking out against Israel. Germany has a long history of protecting people's right to assemble and protest under its Constitution, or Basic Law, which dates back to 1848.

The demonstrations prompted both countries to impose a nationwide, blanket ban on protests in support of Palestine altogether. In France, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin wrote that “pro-Palestinian demonstrations must be prohibited because they are likely to generate disturbances to the public order.” France has proceeded to ban nine protests since Oct. 7, along with imposing 752 fines and 43 arrests since Oct. 12, according to Reuters. In Paris, security threats have forced the evacuation of sites like the Louvre Museum, along with several airports. There is no explicit protection of the right of peaceful assembly in the French Constitution, and under French law, the local town hall or city police station must be notified of an organized protest at least 48 hours in advance.

Berlin pro palestinian protestors
Berlin, home to an estimated 30,000 Palestinians, has ramped up police presence. Fabrizio Bensch—Reuters

In Germany, the haunting reminder of the killing of six million European Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust has especially stirred tensions. “Our history, our responsibility for the Holocaust makes it our duty in every moment to stand for the existence and security of Israel," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told legislators. Along with banning protests, Berlin’s education authorities have also considered banning students from wearing the Palestinian Keffiyeh scarf and "free Palestine" stickers. Since the initial ban, Berlin police have approved two requests for pro-Palestine protests, both proposed as silent vigils. 

In the U.K., a new law introduced by the Conservative government in April 2022 has been met with criticism from civil liberties groups, who say it is too restrictive on protests and infringes the right to freedom of expression. Last week, Home Secretary Suella Braverman told senior police officers that waving a Palestinian flag or chanting specific phrases for Palestine, such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” may be a criminal offense.

Other countries like Hungary and Austria have also blocked pro-Palestine protests since Oct 7.

Read More: How Peace and Prosperity in the Middle East Can Still Be Reached

Is it illegal to ban these protests?

While authorities are allowed to restrict free speech and the freedom to organize, such restrictions should only be imposed when they are “prescribed by law, necessary for a legitimate purpose and proportionate,” Benjamin Ward, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, told TIME in an email. 

“Governments cannot simply point to local laws to justify overriding them,” Ward specified.

The U.K., France, and Germany are obligated to protect free speech and protest as signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights, which applies to most European countries, along with U.N. treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The European Legal Support Center (ELC), an independent organization in the U.K. and Europe, has pointed to a successful court ruling in The Netherlands in August, in which a Dutch court ruled that the Palestinian rights chant, "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is not hateful or punishable by law. In this case, the Dutch public prosecutor argued that the expression relates to “the state of Israel and possibly to people with Israeli citizenship, but does not relate to Jews because of their race or religion.”

Nevertheless, marchers in London say they expect nearly 200,000 people to march in support of Gazans this Saturday. “We will be calling for a ceasefire and an end to the violence, for a lifting of Israel’s siege and for full humanitarian aid to be sent into Gaza immediately,” a spokesperson from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign told TIME.

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Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com