Hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters descended upon "Little Jerusalem," the Jewish neighborhood in the suburb of Sarcelles, north of Paris, on Sunday. Rioters threw a Molotov cocktail at a religious institution next to the synagogue, setting alight a Jewish pharmacy and mini-market, burned vehicles, destroyed property and wreaked havoc at the city’s train station while police tried to secure the area.
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This neighborhood is home to one of France’s biggest Jewish communities, its members residing in a block of buildings centered around a synagogue and a Jewish school. Outside “Little Jerusalem,” the great majority of the population is of African and North African descent.
The situation here has been tense for more than a decade following several anti-Semitic attacks, so when pro-Palestinian organizations called for a protest at the local train station just days after clashes had erupted outside three Paris synagogues – it seemed obvious that things could get out of hand.
To avert public disorder the authorities had banned the Sarcelles rally, as was also the case with a number of events planned for this past weekend in the Paris area, including a protest that the Jewish Defense League wanted to hold.
But like the previous day, in Paris, the pro-Palestinian demonstrators defied the police and began to gather at 3 P.M. Sunday at the train station, about a mile from the local synagogue. The protesters had negotiated with police over the right to hear several speeches and then disperse.
One of the event’s organizers, Suleiman, called for peace.
“We’re not against Israel," he said. "We just want peace for both Palestine and Israel. We have nothing against our Jewish brothers, our friends, our cousins.” He then added, “Allahu akbar (God is great).”
As the protest was staged on the day that commemorates the roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942, the organizers noted: “We respect World War II roundups but what you’re doing in Gaza is genocide, too.”
Quickly, the crowd started chanting anti-Israeli slogans, along the lines of “Israel is a murderer," "[French President] François Hollande is an accomplice."
When the speeches were over Suleiman asked the crowd about 20 times to leave, but it wouldn’t. Hundreds of people carrying Moroccan and other North African flags then started running. At first, they ran in the opposite direction of the synagogue, as police were blocking the street. Then they turned to a street parallel to that of the synagogue, under the gaze of hundreds of people watching them from above in tall buildings.
The crowd then turned again and reached the city’s main avenue, on which the synagogue is located, and then walked toward it. They burned cars, attacked a television crew, and chanted “Allahu akbar.”
Police were stationed on all the streets leading to the Jewish neighborhood, whose residents stood helplessly behind them. Some were afraid that relatives outside the quarter would get hurt.
“I have no news from my boy,” said one father.
“Rue du 8 Mai – it’s the safest way back home,” another man told his daughter on the phone.
“Four Jews were wounded. This is France 2014 and it’s frightening.”
JDL members acted with some restraint on Sunday, unlike a week ago when they confronted pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside the synagogue on rue de la Roquette in Paris. The extremist organization dropped the idea of protesting at the Sarcelles station after local community officials pressed them to avoid all provocation. Instead, its members and other young Jewish men lined up outside the neighborhood synagogue, which they vowed to protect.
“We would rather protect the synagogue than protest,” one man told Haaretz.
By that time, two hours had passed since the pro-Palestinian demonstration had started, and its participants were about 30 meters away from the synagogue.
“Watch out! They can take the school from the side streets,” one Jewish man shouted.
“Why aren’t you firing tear gas at them so they will leave?” several Jews asked policemen on the scene.
“Why aren’t they arresting them?” an elderly man asked a younger one.
“How will 200 police arrest 1,000 protesters?” came the reply.
Every time the police brought in reinforcements or changed position, they were cheered by the crowd – a rare scene in France. Dozens of people clapped from windows; hundreds of others were in the streets outside the bakery and small businesses. “Thank you for saving us! Police! Police! Police!” they cried.
In the aftermath, residents were still concerned that, even after the protest was over and the police had left, those who threatened them would come back.
Elsewhere, police instructed businesses situated on rue des Rosiers, the historic Jewish street in central Paris, to shut their doors after receiving warnings about anti-Jewish militants who were planning to invade the neighborhood.