ON THE GROUND

‘It’s not normal’: Paris protesters decry Gaza conflict’s Palestinian death toll

A demonstrator holds aloft a placard saying "stop the colonisation of Palestinian territories" at a pro-Palestinian protest at Place de la République in eastern Paris on May 23, 2021.
A demonstrator holds aloft a placard saying "stop the colonisation of Palestinian territories" at a pro-Palestinian protest at Place de la République in eastern Paris on May 23, 2021. © Tom Wheeldon, France 24

There was a mood of quiet indignation among the small crowd protesting in Paris on Sunday about this month’s eleven-day flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which at least 260 people were killed, the majority of them Palestinian.

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The gathering at Place de la République in eastern Paris appeared to be far smaller than the crowd in the same location the previous day.

The protests came after an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas came into effect on Friday. But demonstrators doubted that this will do anything to avoid repeated bouts of violence in the future.

“I think [the Israeli government] is making it seem like the fighting’s over and done with so that they can strike harder in the future,” said Rania, 15, who had come to the protest from the suburb Boulogne-Billancourt on the other side of the Paris region with a group of friends the same age.

“It feels very good to be here to support a people in distress,” Rania said. At the same time, she continued, coming to protest was a “very sad” experience, because “no nation deserves to go through what the Palestinians have been through; it’s unacceptable”.

Rania added that she was calling for a solution to the conflict as opposed to allowing the status quo to re-emerge now that the ceasefire is holding: Such a solution would be “beneficial to the Palestinians and for the Israelis too”, she emphasised.

Like yesterday’s protest, this was a “static” demonstration, after Paris police banned a planned march through eastern Paris the previous weekend. French authorities feared a repeat of the ugly scenes at protests during the 2014 Gaza conflict, which saw synagogues targeted and chants of “death to Jews”.

Protesters in Paris on Sunday underlined that they support the Palestinian people while disavowing anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiment.

“We’re not against Israel; we’re against the Israeli government’s mistreatment of Palestinians,” said Cathy, 34, who brought her children to Sunday’s demonstration. “I understand that they were fighting against Hamas, but they also killed lots of innocent people including lots of children,” Cathy continued.

At least 248 Palestinians were killed by Israeli air strikes during this month’s conflict, including 66 children. Hamas rocket attacks killed 12 people in Israel, including one child; Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system blocked many salvos.

The Israeli military said during the conflict that it did its utmost to minimise civilian casualties when responding to Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza, but that the Islamist militant group – classed as a terrorist organisation by the EU and US  – was in effect using them as human shields.

Protesters perform a traditional Palestinian dance at a pro-Palestinian demonstration at Place de la République in eastern Paris on May 23, 2021.
Protesters perform a traditional Palestinian dance at a pro-Palestinian demonstration at Place de la République in eastern Paris on May 23, 2021. © Tom Wheeldon, France 24

Cathy also attended last week’s prohibited rally, and expressed anger at the French government for banning it: “It wasn’t normal to be prevented from protesting like that; other demonstrations have gone ahead this year.”

Like Rania, Cathy expressed scepticism that the ceasefire will change the situation over the long run: “There are always ceasefires, but then the fighting starts again later,” she put it.

She was also angry that “France didn’t condemn what was happening” – a common sentiment among Sunday’s protesters.

During the peak of last week's fighting, the Élysée Palace said French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his condolences “the many Palestinian civilian losses resulting from military operations and ongoing clashes with Israel” and “unwavering attachment to Israel’s security and its right to defend itself in line with international law”.

Macron and other national leaders “have said for years that they want an end to the conflict but there’s never anything concrete; it’s a big silence, really” and “one of the reasons I’m protesting is to try and break that silence”, said Sanah, a young demonstrator at Place de la République.

“It’s not normal in the twenty-first century to have to demonstrate for a nation’s freedom,” she continued.

Myriam, 26, used the exact same phrase to describe the deaths of the 66 Palestinian children in Gaza: “It’s not normal; it’s not human to do that,” she said. “It really upset me.”

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