PARIS – In central Paris on Thursday there was a pro-Israeli party, a pro-Palestinian counter-party and 500 policemen to separate them.
The city’s “Tel-Aviv on the Seine” beach scene recreation, which is meant to celebrate the Israeli city’s way of life, drew a lot of enthusiasm from local Jews and strong criticism from far-left and pro-Palestinian organizations, who turned the events into anything but a carefree celebration.
Even though they knew there would be a protest, thousands of Parisians, including young children and elderly people, the vast majority Jewish, showed up saying they did not feel threatened, even though last year’s pro-Palestinian protests turned violent.
“We wanted to come here for weeks and the controversy won’t change anything,” said Sarah, who came with her friend Paulette.
“We didn’t cancel because we didn’t want to give the radicals the satisfaction,” said Paulette.
“A friend we usually spend time with asked us, ‘Do you really have to go?’ because she was afraid for us. Her father was in Auschwitz. We told her we did have to come here,” said Sarah.
While some danced and played with beach rackets, others didn’t come to have fun but to protest.
“I canceled my vacation so I could come here. Anyone who’s been to Tel Aviv sees that this thing has nothing to do with Tel Aviv. But I wanted to show solidarity with Israel and its government. The press turned this into a controversy. Journalists came here to criticize Israel. I can’t stand it,” said Michèle “The more they tell us not to support Israel and Netanyahu, the more we’ll do it and we will stop being so tolerant.”
The beach on the riverbank was only a few dozen meters long and packed. Families arriving at the area were interviewed by French and international news stations.
“We want to thank the mayor of Paris [Anne Hidalgo] for organizing this. She really stood by her word,” one mother told a French TV crew.
“Journalists ask us what we’re doing here. I think it’s nice to meet people from other countries and its important for our children to meet people from all countries,” said Chinese tourist Dominic.
One lady, Arielle, brought an Israeli and a French flag.
“I want to feel that Paris is mine again,” she said. “Last year we saw all those violent protests and I hoped that this event would help me feel at home again. But I was disappointed when I heard Paris leaders criticize the Israeli government, saying it’s violent.”
On the other side of Notre Dame Bridge, thousands of demonstrators on the impromptu “Gaza Beach” felt the exact opposite.
Many accused the capital’s leaders of being pushed by Israelis and local Jews into organizing what they saw as a shameful event.
“The mayor kept this campaign secret,” said Madjid Messaoudene, a city councilman with the Left Front party. “You may have known about it for weeks but we haven’t! It’s a disgrace.”
Messaoudene accused Hidalgo of caving in to pressure from French Jewish groups such as Crif.
“You know how it is these days. These Jewish groups Crif, the Jewish Defense League and the Vigilance Bureau against Anti-Semitism threatened to present her as an anti-Semite if she canceled the event,” he said.
Eight groups took part in the protest. EuroPalestine’s André said Tel Aviv Beach was set up because “Jews control French politics. Every year French leaders go to Crif’s annual dinner.”
Paris police decided to authorize the pro-Palestinian protest next to the Tel Aviv party, unlike last summer, when protests it banned took place anyway and turned violent in several areas.
First, police tried to keep the protest as far as possible from the Tel Aviv initiative.
“They wanted to send us to another part of the city. But in the end they gave us this spot. It was a real surprise,” said André from EuroPalestine.
Throughout the afternoon, participants on both sites walked back and forth between the entrance gate and a police barrier, with dozens of officers blocking the way towards the rival beach event.
Hundreds watched the Palestinian riverbank from above as dozens of police blocked access to areas surrounding the Tel Aviv site.
Meanwhile, outside the rallies some Israelis and Palestinians debated over the Middle East conflict.
“Jews and Arabs can live together in peace,” said Israeli tourist Eviatar to a pro-Palestinian activist. The activist replied that Hamas is not necessarily bad. “You have to go to the Gaza Strip to judge for yourself,” he said.
Some tourists and Parisian pedestrians found themselves caught in the middle between the disputants, taking a few seconds to orient themselves and take sides.
“This is a democracy. Anyone can say what he wants, so Israelis can celebrate and pro-Palestinians can protest,” said Mariam, reading the banners with her son.
On Gaza Beach, a little girl looked at images of dead Palestinian children while a Palestinian woman sold falafel balls, saying, “We don’t steal land and we don’t steal recipes, get it? They pretend falafel is Israeli!”
An Algerian family left, disappointed.
“We thought there would be some beach games for children, but this is just politics!” said the parents, taking their three children to another Paris attraction.