Editorial introduction: Since the launch of Hamas’ Operation Al-Aqsa Flood and Israel’s bombing of the besieged Gaza Strip, Palestinians and pro-Palestine activists in Europe are facing unprecedented censorship, policing, harassment, arrests, gag orders, and threats. In compiling reports from leftist activists across Europe, we aim to alert progressives across the region of the oppression Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists are facing. We also aim to show that this pattern of oppression relies on the intensification of already-existing racist practices such as racial profiling, anti-migration policies, and police intimidation, arrest, and harassment. While these practices are not new, the scale at which they are multiplying is alarming.
A meeting of Austria’s National Crisis Cabinet on Friday, 19 October 2023 – attended by leading members of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), including Austrian Chancellor Karl Nahammer, its Defense Minister Klaudia Tanner, and Interior Minister Gerhard Karner –concluded with calls for increasing state surveillance capacities in response to what it called ‘recent escalations’ in the Middle East. The previous week, Nehammer gave a speech at the #StandWithIsrael demonstration next to an Israeli flag that had been raised on top of the Chancellor’s office. That same day, only a short distance away in the heart of the city center, the police were kettling hundreds of people that had turned out to protest the unfolding massacre of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Such double standards are not a new phenomenon in Austria. Yet, the rise of political oppression, including heightened anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian racism precisely when settler colonial violence in Palestine is increasing should be alarming to all of us.
From the River to the Sea
In Austria, the intimidation and criminalization of protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people has intensified since the launch of Hamas’ Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, Israel’s bombing of the besieged Gaza Strip and its heightened military/police repression and ongoing ethnic cleansing across Palestine. So far, the Austrian police are using a variety of tactics to silence vigils and demonstrations. This includes deploying unusually high numbers of police and secret service personnel at Palestine solidarity events. These police deployments constitute the first level response in a much broader government crackdown on Palestinian activists and their allies in Austria.
On top of heightened state repression, Austrian media outlets are also playing their role in attempting to portray Palestine-solidarity events negatively. Much like the reporting in Germany, these outlets seek to reframe the narrative around pro-Palestine events in a way that encourages the criminalization and intimidation of pro-Palestinian voices, even among ‘credible’ (leftist) media.
On October 11, the Vienna police canceled a vigil in solidarity with Gaza shortly before the start of the event, stating that the organizers posted a slogan that allegedly calls for ‘violence’ and supports ‘terrorism.’ The slogan in question was: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” – a slogan widely used in the Palestinians freedom struggle. After the organizers were forced to cancel the event through their social media platform, people nevertheless turned up at the proposed location. That evening, the police kettled hundreds of protesters and held them for about 2-3 hours, releasing individuals, one by one, only after police recorded their personal details and issued a total of 304 individual fines. According to the umbrella organizing network Palästina Solidarität, “from the river to the sea” is an expression advocating the end of colonial rule, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and one state for all citizens with the same rights and freedoms. Nevertheless, attempts to criminalize the slogan are being used to further intensify curbs on the freedom of assembly and speech.
Several organizers in Vienna have told me that the police are using intimidation during the registration of public assemblies for Palestine. It is now standard for permits to not only mention the place and purpose of the demonstration, but also to include a declaration that ‘incitement’ and ‘hate speech’ allegedly represented by the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” must be prevented by the organizers. As one of my colleagues told me: “I found it intimidating that four police officers were waiting for one organizer to start the registration process. What normally takes 30 minutes took them nearly one and a half hours, and it felt like they wanted to make us their watchdogs.”
Nevertheless, both smaller and bigger actions in solidarity with Palestine continue to be organized in Vienna. On Friday, October 20, a group of students and activists supported the global general strike in Vienna’s Tenth District and on Saturday October 21, around five thousand people marched towards the US embassy demanding an end to the mass atrocities in Gaza and freedom for Palestine. The events drew individuals and groups from across the political and social spectrum. Although this demonstration was the biggest so far, it was poorly reported in the media.
That same week, an event about Palestinian liberation organized by CAGE Austria – a group initially formed to collect the testimonies of Austrian Muslims in the wake of Operation Luxor, an unlawful series of police raids targeting over 70 households in November 2020 – was approached by secret service personnel shortly before the start of the discussion.
On the same day that Nehammer visited Israel and declared that Austria’s neutrality will not apply in the context of fighting terrorism, people met at Stephansplatz to hold a vigil and call for an end to the massacres in Gaza. The event was canceled by the police, and one of the organizers was arrested for continuing to protest.
The Arab Palestinian Club issued a strong statement against police attempts to define what Palestinians in Austria are allowed to say about liberation. They also pushed back against Austria’s attempts to declare specific slogans as ‘incitement’ and could hold several vigils on the basis of these arguments. As the Club argued:
“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” does not in any way suggest that it is directed against human beings, but rather it rejects a political system and a regime. The authorities are obviously using a one-sided, unreflective, and unfounded interpretation of this sentence to justify its erroneous legal position, and are using this interpretation as a bogus pretext to prohibit peaceful gatherings of thousands of people who want to protest against a war. The reason for this is purely political.
The authorities do not express any real concern about the possibility of unlawful statements or actions within the meaning of § 11 or § 13 of the Assembly Act (Versammlungsgesetz). Furthermore, inflammatory or inhuman content cannot be imputed to the sentence in question. The organizers will intervene in the case of (genuine) incitements or in the case of unlawful actions, to stop such actions and, as a last resort, to dissolve the assembly on their own initiative.”
Despite the authorities’ repression of freedom of speech and assembly, Palästina Solidarität mentioned in their November 6 newsletter, that the group has already handed in 12 appeals against these cancellations and will continue to fight against these policies of intimidation.
Mobilizing All Over the Country
Currently public acts of mourning for those killed in Gaza, displays of anger aimed at the complicity of European leaders in Israel’s genocidal military campaign against Palestinians, and resistance to repression are all either being criminalized or censored in Austria. In response, pro-Palestine organizers and individuals remain undeterred and continue to call for vigils and rallies to be held all over the country.
In Upper Austria’s capital, Linz, two women registered a vigil to – as per their statement – speak for those who are being deprived of space for their voices to be heard, who have no internet and no water in Gaza. The event was attended by up to 500 people. As one of the participants recounts: “Finally, Linz is waking up. The event was attended by people from all parts of society. The vigil gave space for raising our collective voice, but also individual speakers to voice their pain.” The police announced that they are prepared for all scenarios, including a full recording of the event, massive police presence and the availability of special units, including the famous anti-terror unit ‘Cobra.’ Posters with the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” were banned onsite.
In an interview, a member of Palästina Solidarität Steiermark recalled a rally that took place on October 20 in Graz: “Normally, we always say that the police in Graz are not as bad as in Vienna, but their behavior has changed.” After the police canceled the demonstration due to concerns about public safety, the crowd walked in pairs of two through the city and organically gathered again at another point. After a while, the police started to kettle demonstrators, and the people used the opportunity to hold the rally inside the police circle chanting “Free Palestine!”, “Stop the genocide in Gaza!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” One participant used the opportunity to speak about the loss of 47 family members in Gaza.
A person whose data was taken by police that day received a police summons a few days later, including information that she had been reported under Section 283 of the Criminal Code, which deals with ‘incitement,’ because she was holding the flag of Palestine with the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” written on it. The police asked her on-site, when they saw a sticker of the organization Palästina Solidarität, why she follows this organization. When she failed to keep the date of the summons, informing authorities that it was because her son was ill, the Graz police showed up at her door three days in a row.
Like in Vienna, police in Graz also registered all demonstrators held in the police kettle. Among the protesters was a 16-year-old who got into an argument with the police about their registering of his identity information. As he tried to get away from the police, one officer was slightly injured, and the 16-year-old was taken into custody for a full week. Witnesses present at the rally said they believe the police provoked this incident on purpose to further use it as a pretext for canceling other demonstrations. Witnesses also reported a massive police presence, police live recording of all speakers, and a drone flying above their heads. One of the organizers reported that intelligence services came to his house, questioned him about his activism, and “advised” him not to be instrumentalized by the wrong people.
Other participants of pro-Palestine events across the country, including in Styria, received police visits. One person reported being fired from his job due to sharing posts about Palestine and the massacres in Gaza on Facebook. Other Palestine solidarity assemblies took place in Innsbruck and Salzburg. Organizers reported uncertainties of the local police officers in how to deal with the administration of the vigils. In Innsbruck, the police demanded images of the banners and pictures that would be used by organizers as well as the translation of any slogans voiced in Arabic. The location of the protest was changed by the authorities shortly before the event started, and police presence was intensified in comparison to previous assemblies in solidarity with Palestine.
Rise of Anti-Muslim and Anti-Palestinian Racism
Shortly after October 7, a concerning increase in on- and offline anti-Muslim hate speech, particularly anti-Palestinian hate speech, was recorded in Austira. In an interview, the Documentation Center for Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism notes that there is a discernible increase in online comments in which Muslims, as well as Islam itself, are inherently equated with a propensity for violence, in which Muslims are sweepingly equated with terror, in which Muslims are portrayed as cold-blooded and ready for murder, in which Islam and, therefore, Muslims are portrayed as inherently incapable of being peaceful, in which Muslims are portrayed as anti-Semitic and responsible for anti-Semitism worldwide (and more specifically in Austria).
The Documentation Center has also received reports of children and youth that are being increasingly marginalized, treated with general suspicion, forced to position themselves, to justify themselves, and that are made responsible and attacked. Furthermore, youth in social work and educational institutions recount a further increase in police stops/controls based on racial attributions and racial profiling. Also, mosque communities have reported the secret services visiting mosques and asking about the communities discussions about the recent events in Palestine.
While the city of Vienna issued an urgent statement, announcing important emergency funding of €100,000 EUR to ESRA, a counseling center for individuals living in Vienna, maily from Jewish communities, survivors of Nazi persecution, and descendants and relatives of Nazi persecution, psycho-social support services for the Muslim population or other racialized groups have not been considered. This praxis creates one-sided political messages that can contribute to social division and pitting marginalized groups against each other.
Further, the dehumanization of Palestinian life and blanket racism in public media, cultural institutions, and political speech translate into the silencing of Palestinian voices in the context of unfolding massacres and forced mass displacement in Gaza. While intensified since October 2023, anti-Palestinian hostilities drive the city of Vienna, and other political as well as civil society institutions to crack down on Palestine solidarity with a specific focus on the BDS movement. While the municipality of Vienna is currently running a slapp suit against BDS Austria, the University of Vienna canceled a Teach-In Series on campus titled “Against the Present: Past and Future Perspectives on Palestine” claiming that the event was one-sided and that the speakers are active BDS supporters.
The Austrian Way
After the National Crisis Cabinet meeting on October 19, Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler (Green Party), stated that there would be “massively increased surveillance of Hamas” and “friendly organizations” in Austria. He specifically pointed out that “what is preached in the mosques on Fridays” would be closely monitored, while declaring his support for freedom of demonstration. His statement symbolises the current functioning of the conservative-right/liberal coalition in which the Austrian People’s Party as hard liners get more and more backing for anti-Muslim narratives in the Green Party (Die Grünen). What is concerning is that this is not the first time that Nehammer has called on people to report suspicious behavior or “radicalized” tendencies. Moreover, the Interior minister, Karner, is already pushing for changes in the field of data protection in Austria in order to “protect human rights” in his words. He is indirectly referring to an increase in the use of surveillance software that has been successfully opposed by human rights organizations in Austria for years.
The call for expanding surveillance measures and cracking down on specific communities in Austria in the context of rising numbers of antisemitic, Islamophobic and anti-Black hate speech and attacks, all take place in the aftermath of Austria’s largest police raid since WWII. Three years ago, on November 9, “Operation Luxor”, targeted Muslim-led institutions, charity organizations, renowned scholars and social media activists.
The unlawful operation against Muslims in Austria was closely coordinated with Egyptian and Israeli security apparatuses trying to crack down on communities and individuals allegedly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas. While there have been no convictions in several of the ongoing investigations, the current political climate of censorship, surveillance and dehumanization of Palestinian life – Austria was one of the few countries that voted against a humanitarian cease-fire at the UN – has to be challenged on all fronts possible. The current moment represents a dangerous acceleration of democratic backsliding in Austria and increased violations of basic freedoms and fundamental rights of many groups in this country, which must neither be condoned nor tolerated at any level. The Austrian public and especially the Austrian left have to stand up against apartheid’s belief of separating the lives and rights of people. As one of the demonstrators and survivors of Operation Luxor stated in a Palestinian solidarity event in November:
“Habibi, let me break it to you that this generation is aware of your bullshit!
This generation believes in the right of return. This generation is united, all of us. This generation will break your ignorance and silences. This generation believes in togetherness. This generation believes in actual peace made under the right circumstances. Peace that includes justice, dignifies all human rights and has no problem with everyone being free.
I refuse to be put in this position.
I refuse to be dehumanized.
I refuse to be criminalized.
I have the right to return, so free free Palestine.”
Klaudia Wieser is a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna and a founding member of Push-Back Alarm Austria.