City & UniversityInterview

Global War, Local Problems: Christmas Trees and Chokeholds

It’s the 9th of December. Protesters on the Grote Markt wave signs and chant voraciously between the Martini Church and City Hall. Around the circle of protesters the oliebollen cart and a towering Christmas tree have been erected in the square to mark the season. 

“Israel is a terrorist state!” 

This was the same chant uttered at central station on the 7th, which triggered action by police.

I have blurred the faces in this video to protect the identities of those involved. Many I spoke to feared being retaliated against and discrimination in future life opportunities such as seeking a job. 

I meet the woman from the video who was arrested. She walks with me to the back of the crowd. Next to us, the oliebollen cart releases its smells of sweetness and grease while passersby pick something to eat. They bite into their fried dough balls and walk around the protestors; sometimes stopping to stare, sometimes averting their eyes. The scene feels so dissonant as I listen to her recount the other night at the station. 

“We were demonstrating and we always shout ‘Israel terrorist’ during these. However, this time it was advised against doing so by a police officer that came by later. He said that we were not allowed to say this. But we continued to do so and they came towards us telling us that if we do not stop saying that sentence, they would have to take measures against us.”

Despite the warning, the protesters did not stop.

“They began to push us and I had to leave, but my son stayed behind; they did not even let me get my son from the station. Thus I was shouting loudly towards them and I told the police that I think that they are also terrorists. The police officer felt very offended and then it all completely got out of hand, which led to my arrest for insulting a police officer. It did leave some physical damage in my neck.”

She and her husband were released not long after the protest was broken up, with a court case pending for incitement. 

GfP is a student-initiated activist organization established a little over a year ago to “bring attention to the public about what’s going on in Palestine and the over 75 years of occupation and ethnic cleansing,” as one of the members explains to me. They organized this protest “because of the current bombings of Gaza and the ground invasion… to draw for attention and call for a ceasefire and to let the people know that this is not okay, that the genocide must be stopped.”

The woman and her husband still have a court case. Fees were beginning to mount, but GfP announced on the 11th of December that a lawyer decided to take up their case for free. 

Despite the arrest and court case, the woman and her husband are here on the Grote Markt chanting again, “Israel is a terrorist state”.

Photo by Romano Liu

Watching a girl pass out Palestinian flags, I scratch my head for memories of all the protests I’ve seen in Groningen in these last years: Anti-Immigration, Pro-Farmers, Anti-Fracking… The one that seems most comparable, at least by topic, would be the Pro-Ukraine protests. After all, both support invaded countries. Yet this one does feel different. It’s harder to protest an invasion, when the country you live in supports the invaders.

There’s a tension in the air that is unmistakable. When I first arrive, a few policemen watch from above, leaning against the balcony pillars of the city hall. 

Photo by Romano Liu

As time goes on, more and more policemen arrive to surround the protesters. Two even show up on horseback, while another grips the leash of a police dog. I swear I see more police here than in any other Groningen protest I have witnessed.

Photo by Romano Liu

Some of the protesters wear the same yellow vests as the policemen. They watch the periphery of the circle; keeping the protesters together and away from the police to discourage conflict while the policemen smile through gritted teeth.

Near this boundary between the two groups I speak to a lawyer who specializes in criminal defense as well as human rights. He came to Groningen from Rotterdam after seeing the videos of the arrest and being contacted by members of GfP. As an alumni of the University of Groningen, he felt a strong solidarity with our city’s protesters.

“I’ve come especially to make sure everything is legal… to make sure the police do not overstep the line and guarantee that everyone has the right to protest, as is guaranteed under the Dutch constitution as well as the convention on Human Rights… saying Israel is a terrorist state falls completely under freedom of speech and is not a crime.”

Aside from this case, the lawyer has already been part of those lobbying various FIRs (First Incident Reports) to hold the Dutch government accountable for its support of genocide and war crimes in Palestine. For years, they have been working with the ICJ (International Court of Justice), ICC (International Criminal Court), and the Dutch prosecutors office. 

The ICC is a global institution set up by the UN to prosecute “genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression”, crimes whose concern transcend the imagined boundaries of states. Yet their effectiveness is often under question. 

Concerning the ICC prosecutor investigating war crimes by Israelis and Palestinians, Karim Khan, the lawyer had this to say:

“The inactivity of the present prosecutor Mr. Khan is able to be seen on his face. He goes to Israel and Palestine and he has a few nice speeches and doesn’t do anything about it. That is upsetting. However, at the end of the day people will be held accountable… it might take 10, 20, 50 years, but we will get there somehow.”

The Dutch government’s export of F-35 fighter jet parts to the Israeli military for use in Palestine is one of the most recent actions to come under international scrutiny. On December 4 this was picked up by the national District Court in The Hague. According to Reuters, this was dismissed December 15 by arguing “they must leave the Dutch government a large degree of freedom when it comes to weighing political and policy issues in deciding on arms exports”.

Photo by Romano Liu

This country’s government is not the only institution to be criticized in its support of Israel. The University of Groningen has also been facing a backlash for its continuous cooperation with Israeli universities. Of course the institutions are made of many people, and of course they do not all agree with the decisions made by the majority of their superiors. Yet ultimately it is true that both of these pillars of society have been working with Israel these past years.

In their initial statement issued on November 24th, the University said:

From within and also from outside the UG community, we are receiving many questions about the UG’s position towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like everyone else, we follow the news from the war zone with horror and are deeply concerned. Not only with regard to the terrible situation there, but also with regard to the impact the conflict is having on our UG community…

We are receiving appeals from many directions to take sides, not only in this conflict but also in other conflicts. However, as a university, this is not our position and role to take; the university is not a political organization.

As a university, we are tasked with safeguarding and facilitating independent thinking and analyzing what is happening in the world around us, with the aim of developing solutions and ideas on how to do things differently. We encourage our academics to share their expertise with the society that surrounds them and we support them in doing so.

The statement ended with a call to hold a meeting to discuss the war in an academic setting on the 14th of December. This turned into a public Studium Generale lecture titled “Gaza in Context”. More about this can be read in the article we will publish on Wednesday. 

However this statement in which they say that the university does not take sides feels incongruent when referring back to how they handled the invasion of Ukraine:

We wish to express our solidarity with students and staff in Ukraine, and we embrace those in the academic communities in Russia who are speaking out against the invasion while courageously continuing to dedicate themselves to peace, dialogue and open cooperation.

The fact that they expressed solidarity with Ukraine and those “speaking out against the invasion” seems proof of a stance far from neutral.

“The University of Groningen says they are neutral, yet work together with Universities that work with the Israeli army. So you can hardly call that neutral, and if you are neutral in the case of genocide, than you are complicit in it,”  the GfP member tells me defiantly, though slightly muffled through her balaclava.

Photo by Romano Liu

Keffiyehs are often worn by Pro-Palestine protesters. It is an article of folk-clothing traditionally worn by Palestinians and other Arabs, now adopted as a symbol of resilience and resistance.

“There is only one solution, Intifada, revolution.”

This chant by the protesters refers to the Arab uprisings and protests against Israel. Every translation of the word gives me a different result: freedom, redemption, or revolution.

According to the UN, the first Intifada started in 1987 in refugee camps in Gaza. They began with protesting, rioting, and throwing rocks. Israel cracked down hard on these protests, leading to condemnation by the Human Rights Watch in 1990. Again in 2000, after the failure of the Camp David Summit to make peace, a second intifada of mass rioting and protest would grip the nation, leading to increasing militarization in Palestine.

“I don’t understand why people don’t speak up about Palestine because it’s about human rights. People are oppressed there. We should stand with them because if we were in that situation we would want people to stand with us too. I don’t understand why people always make it about beliefs. That it’s the Jews versus the Arabs, the Jews versus the Muslims, the Jews versus the Palestinians. That isn’t the case. It’s a big problem and it’s used to frame what’s going on,” says another protester I speak to. 

To further illustrate her point, she briefly refers to the history in Palestine, where minorities of Arab Jews and Christians lived alongside Muslims before the European Zionist colonization efforts began in 1896. “What’s going on is not about beliefs, it’s about an oppressor and an oppressed. Everyone says Israel has the right to self defense but it’s not self defense when you occupy someone else’s country and then oppress its people.”

Speakers come up and go, enthusing the crowd into a raucous roar filled with anger and hurt.

“The only thing I want is the same rights. The only thing I want is peace between everyone. I understand that you can’t just send them [Zionist settlers and Jewish refugee descendents] back.” Frustration tinges her voice as her eyes scan the horizon above for a sign of solution.

I leave the Grote Markt as it starts raining, carrying a sense of dread. 

A couple days later, the Dutch government abstained from voting for a ceasefire in Palestine during a UN General Assembly meeting. Perhaps they want to see their F-35s get used.