ELMO Interviews

We Asked: How is the Suppression of Palestinian Solidarity Unfolding in Croatia?

Source: Free Palestine. Solidarity from Croatia (fb account)

Since the launch of Hamas’ Operation Floods of Aqsa and Israel’s bombardment of besieged Gaza, Palestinians and pro-Palestine activists in Europe have been facing unprecedented censorship, policing, harassment, arrests, gag orders, and threats. In compiling several reports from leftist activists in various locations in Europe, we aim to alert our activist communities across our region to the oppression that Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activism are facing. We also aim to show that this pattern of oppression relies on heavily exaggerating already-existing racist practices such as racial profiling, anti-migration policies, and on activating racist institutional practices such as police intimidation, arrest, and harassment. While these practices are not new, the scale at which they are multiplying is alarming. This piece has been solicited through our cooperation with Croatian Left Platform Radnička prava within the framework of the East European Left Media Outlet (ELMO).

— The LeftEast Editorial Board

As usual, the Croatian public and its politics are politically divided. Some of us refer to the ongoing conflict in Palestine as “genocide” interchangeably with “ethnic cleansing” while others refer it to as “bloodshed”. The current fracture within the various factions of the left is now drawn along the lines of Palestine, which has unexpectedly become the new focal point amid a multitude of social issues and political disputes in our country. This development presents a significant political challenge for us. And it is definitely a political challenge for us. We are actively seeking ways to overcome this emerging divide within the left and of the political spectrum.

As far as mainstream politics are concerned, we did not at first face explicit suppression of pro-Palestinian expression in Croatia, Rather,  we were encountering silent pressures, censorship and marginalization of individuals and groups who organize the anti-war movement and agitate for solidarity with Palestine. Citizens, scholars, activists, artists, writers, and others who have been engaged in organizing protests, artistic interventions and public dialogues have faced demands for language accommodations, pressures to withdraw from protests, workplace silencing, job loss due to Palestinian ties, media censorship, and ignorance. On the other hand, one of our activists also got a job in a state institution on account of her public support for Palestine. All these examples are a testament to the fact that social reality is much more polarised than the media is making it out to be. 

Several peaceful protests occurred in Croatia over the past two months. Two mass demonstrations on October 25th and November 25th, as well as daily protests at a few public sites, including the government facility, proceeded without police intervention. This differed from the experience of numerous other pro-Palestinian initiatives across Europe that encountered severe police violence. Our protests did face close surveillance, however, with  the substantial presence of police in both official and civilian attire. The demonstrations were extensively recorded by dozens of ground cameras and aerial drones. Additionally, we observed police requesting documents specifically from protesters of color, indicating the use of racial profiling.

When we organized the first mass protest in solidarity with Palestine -against the war and occupation- Palestinian and migrant/refugee communities living in Croatia were afraid to join or speak publicly due to their concerns about the security of their families in the Gaza Strip as well as their legal status in Croatia. The Free Palestine Initiative received information from a few individuals who expressed fears about potentially losing their residence permits if they were to attend the protests. More Palestinians and migrants joined the second protest Not in our name! Peace and freedom to Palestine! and a few even spoke publicly. After the protests some of them reported silencing and threats from particular institutions that they were reluctant to identify.

What are the stances of the government and police?

On October 26th the Croatian government joined the camp of 14 countries that voted against the UNGA’s resolution calling for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities in Gaza Strip.” Only days before the vote, the Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs Grlić Radman paid an official visit to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and expressed his sympathies with the Israeli losses.

Just a day earlier, it seemed that Croatian politics might take a different course. On Oct 25, following the statement of the European Council, the Croatian government had taken the  decision to send 250,000 Euros worth of aid to the Gaza Strip. However, the next day, the Croatian vote at the UNGA supported the state of Israel and the IDF’s indiscriminate bombing and extension of the war. The Croatian stance on Israel’s right to defense is predominantly based in correcting the history of the crimes committed against Jews during the period the Independent State of Croatia acted as a Nazi puppet state orchestrated by Hitler’s regime. Moreover, Croatia is currently presiding over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In his address on IHRA’s plenary session in Zagreb on December 8th, the Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković expressed his and the government’ unequivocal solidarity with Israel while marginally calling for peace in Gaza. The Croatian state has firm diplomatic, cultural, economic and political connections with the state of Israel, too.

Croatia has never recognized a Palestinian state or established diplomatic relations despite the long history of collaboration with the Palestinian liberation movements during the Non-Aligned era.

The problem for us is the too soft stance on this issue by our left-wing comrades who are in parliament right now.

How is pro-Palestinian expression being defined as pro-terrorist? Are there other forms of protest (e.g. antifascist for one) that are being or have been targeted with this designation as well?

The root of these prejudices, such as the association of Arabs with Muslims, stems from the widespread influence of ethnonationalism ingrained even in the subtlest corners of our country. As an example, the ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), has refrained from publicly condemning the extreme right-wing due to the strong ties it has with this radical offshoot of its own party. HDZ relies on this support base for votes, especially since the Social Democrats have shifted more towards the center-right, leaving many Croatian citizens disengaged from voting and resulting in an underutilized democracy. Our issues are deeply rooted in the aforementioned ethnonationalism, coupled with historical revisionism, where conservative fractions portray themselves as progressive. This predicament is further worsened by click-based media that prioritize sensationalism over thoughtful reporting. This media culture generates sensational and socially harmful news headlines that perpetuate prejudices, demanding considerable time and effort to address. The systemic flaws in our society have become increasingly evident.

Media reports in Croatia often tend to drown the long history of the Palestinian question by emphasizing Hamas, Israel’s right to defense, and equating or identifying the Holocaust experience of European Jews in the Second World War with Israel’s state-building experience in the Levant. Alongside those portrayals, we have been tracking the representation of migration from SWANA (South-East Asia and North Africa) to Europe as a threat, hence the increase of securitization measures, and politics of border and land militarization. Scholars and activists in the Balkans have been discussing the production of biased politics against Arabs, Palestinians, and Muslims (including local Muslims across the Balkan geographies) followed by the politics of lumping Arab, Muslim and terrorists in the same basket.

The Free Palestine Initiative observes and calls out biased journalism and the politics of flattening explained above. 

How do you see the public discussion, and the level and quality of media reporting? What are the key and/or critical points?

Except for a few, the media reports are biased. But the media makers are still not conscious of their limitations. There were few factors that shocked the media. For example, after the Croatian vote at the UN, an overwhelming number of Croatian citizens reacted on social media by stating NOT IN MY NAME. This support left the media in shock, since their first reporting had been copy/pasted from superficial American news outlets. But after the public outcry of “NOT IN MY NAME”, media reports started to be more grounded and less racist, and prone to reproducing hate-mongering generalizations in the style of equating all of Islam with terrorism. 

After that, the Free Palestine Initiative released the NOT IN OUR NAME statement and simultaneously organized two direct actions, one in front of the Croatian government, the other in front of the Embassy of Israel on October 31st. Soon after this, the Free Palestine Initiative started daily standing actions in front of the Government, at the main public square Trg bana Jelačića, and at Vukovarska street with its dense traffic. A number of citizens joined the Free Palestine Initiative based on of these daily protests. Moreover, an increasing number of public figures and opinion makers are speaking up about the horrors of the atrocities in Palestine and express condemnation of such violence. We perceive this as direct evidence of the impact of our organizing and the silent work we did through less public dialogues. More artists, actors, film-makers, and citizens have been reaching out to the Free Palestine Initiative wanting to contribute to the cause. One such example is the  Gaza Monologues, a global project that includes the labor of translation and public reading. The public reading of the monologues was joined by 8 popular actors and actresses, as well as citizens across Croatia. Another example was a poetry evening Gaza, Undated, which was  joined by  poets protesting the genocide and deaths, and seeking freedom and healing.

The public seems somewhat polarized, according to the glimpses captured through social media. No relevant research has been done since October 7th, however the national poll conducted on October 21 states that 14% of the Croatian population supports Israel whereas 9% supports Palestine. The same poll shows that 47,5 % of the Croatian population thinks that the war that Israel instigated against Hamas will mostly kill innocent civilians and children on both sides of the conflict. Public discussions have been organized by different organizations and media outlets. However, it seems that the discourse of war and conflict that treats this as a confrontation of two sides with equal capacity prevails. Even amongst human rights advocates and peace activists, we can notice the polarization.

How are groups managing to express sophisticated analysis of the situation that both support Palestinian self-determination and avoid antisemitism?

There has not been much space in the mainstream media for complex and critical analysis these days. While there are different public debates and forums occurring weekly, they are not finding much coverage in the mainstream media nor do they have sufficient criticality given their geopolitical orientations. 

On the other hand, Free Palestine Initiative putting things in their adequate historical contexts. We point out the false facts and just try to put things in their contexts. For example, Free Palestine Initiative started a series of teach-ins recently and is focusing on expanding the public dialogue with different social groups and communities. Important directions we are moving in currently encompass the labor of weaving solidarities with the Palestinian community, including those evacuated from Gaza (we are currently running a fundraiser with Zaklada Slagalica); connecting with peace and human rights circles; working to build trust and open dialogues with the Jewish community; and public communication with citizens more generally.  

We are continuously adapting our strategies in the face of two very limiting social factors: the fact that the mainstream politics is purely right wing even with regard to left representatives (this is nowhere as clear as in the political case of Palestine. The lingo of left representatives is quite bland and lacks criticality); and fact of the uncritical and undeveloped political literacy of the mainstream media.

The Free Palestine Initiative is currently the only organized group/ coalition that actively condemns the acts of genocide occurring under the Israel’s lasting apartheid and occupation regime. The group is wide and heterogeneous, gathering Croatian intellectuals, feminist groups, anti-war movements, civil society organizations, Arab and Palestinian communities, migrant and refugee communities, Muslim communities, and others. The Initiative agrees on the need for dedicated and educated communication with members of the Jewish community and their inclusion in individual activities of the Initiative on the path towards opening safe spaces for mourning human losses and at the same time discussing insecurities, confusion and other accompanying phenomena. The Free Palestine Initiative organizes peaceful protests, direct actions, and teach-ins on Palestine. The Initiative insists on grappling with the historic and current political and geopolitical complexities as well as with expression of humanitarian positions and solidarity while engaging with the critical interrogation of the politics of genocide denial both within Croatian (civil) society and with regard to acts of the government. The Initiative also condemns Islamophobia and antisemitism and is invested in the educational labor that includes the careful crafting of visual and textual materials it shares publicly. In the same way, we labor to combat internal biases within this Initiative that gathers people of different backgrounds and political socialization.