Pro-Palestine demo on Wenceslas Square highlights divisions in Czech society

The current Israel-Hamas war has highlighted divisions in Czech society, which were clearly visible in a demonstration and counter-demonstration that both took place on Sunday afternoon in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. The first demonstration, called “End the Cycle of Violence!”, had the stated purpose of honouring all victims of this bloody conflict, the majority of which are unarmed civilians.

Zdeněk Jehlička | Photo: Igor Budykin,  Radio Prague International

The “End the Cycle of Violence!” protest was organised jointly by student group Olive Branches, civic association Not In Our Name, the International Solidarity Movement, and the Friends of Palestine Association. Zdeněk Jehlička from Not In Our Name told Radio Prague that the demonstration was intended to pay respect to all casualties of the war, regardless of ethnic origin.

“We gathered here today to honour the memory of all the victims of this conflict on both sides, and also to express our outrage at the violence and murder that is happening in Israel-Palestine. We also want to express solidarity with the people who are suffering under occupation, apartheid and colonisation – a problem that isn’t discussed much in this country – and to break the silence that has long surrounded the issue of Palestine.”

Photo: Igor Budykin,  Radio Prague International

While the Czech government, as well as several hundred people who gathered on Prague’s Wenceslas Square last Monday evening, have clearly expressed their support for Israel in the wake of Hamas’ attacks on the country, Jehlička, along with a few dozen others who attended Sunday’s demonstration, argue that continuing the cycle of violence will only bring more pain for both sides.

“We think that a short-term solution could be to deescalate tensions, which is what our petition calls for. That means stopping the blockade of Gaza, not inciting ethnically-motivated violence, ending the occupation and colonisation of the West Bank, and negotiating a two-state or one-state solution – which isn’t up to us, but up to the inhabitants of the region.”

Photo: Igor Budykin,  Radio Prague International

The event also drew around 20 counter-protestors carrying Israeli flags. Among them was Czech Defence Minister Jana Černochová:

Photo: Igor Budykin,  Radio Prague International

“After Saturday’s attacks, Israel is carrying out a legitimate war of defence. What we’ve seen in the media since Saturday is hard to deal with and recover from. The civilian casualties are unprecedented – something like this didn’t happen even in the Yom Kippur War. So I don’t want anyone to publicly cast doubt on the idea that Israel is legitimately defending its territory and civilian population.”

In response to a question from a reporter regarding under what circumstances she would respond critically towards Israel, she conceded that previous governments had not always acted responsibly, but was quick to reemphasise that Israel had a right to self-defence:

Photo: Igor Budykin,  Radio Prague International

“In the past, especially under the previous government, there were certain moments with regards to the West Bank, for example, where I think things should have played out differently. However, what took place on Saturday left me with no doubt that Israel is waging a war solely of defence. In the wake of the murder of Israeli civilians, what else could Israel have done in response other than the retaliatory attacks on Gaza?”

Another counter-protestor, who did not wish to say his name, put it even more bluntly:

“That group of people over there are celebrating a terrorist attack that took over 1300 lives. In my opinion, they have no right to be doing that.”

Photo: Igor Budykin,  Radio Prague International

But Jehlička notes that many Palestinians have also lost their lives, and that the two sides are not evenly matched.

We are here to call for compliance with international law and human rights commitments. The main problem is that the stronger side, the side with more power, i.e. Israel, has not been doing this. We can only appeal to our Czech politicians not to give special treatment to Israel. We see the politics of apartheid and colonialism carried out by the state of Israel as the root cause of this conflict and the main problem that needs to be solved. Without solving this problem, the war will never end.”

Photo: Igor Budykin,  Radio Prague International