Bigger Crowds, More Demonstrations For Palestine Across Tunisia on Nakba

Photo from the demonstration in support of Palestine in downtown Tunis on Saturday, May 15, taken by photographer Ahmed Zarrouki and republished by Meshkal with his permission.

Several demonstrations took place across Tunisia on Saturday in support for Palestine as Israel continued its military assaults after violently dispersing worshippers at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on May 10 and following a home dispossession campaign by settlers in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem.

The demonstrations in the cities of Tunis, Monastir, Sfax, Medenine, Bizerte and more cities coincided with the 73-year commemoration of the Nakba.

Photo from the demonstration in support of Palestine in downtown Tunis on Saturday, May 15, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

Three separate demonstrations occurred in the capital Tunis: one downtown on Habib Bourguiba Avenue at noon drew hundreds, one in front of the Palestinian Embassy in the Mutuelleville neighborhood at 3 p.m. was slightly larger and drew nearly 1000 people, and a third one organized by the Civil Union Against Normalization, which includes organizations apparently affiliated with the political party Ennahdha, in Kasbah Plaza in front of Prime Minister’s office at 11 a.m. drew hundreds as well.

Against Normalization

“I am here to express both our solidarity with the Palestinian people, but also our mission as Tunisians here is to impose on our State to take decisive measures…which is first of all the criminalization of normalization [with Israel],” Moutaa Amin Elwaer, one of the demonstrators at the rally downtown Avenue Habib Bourguiba, told Meshkal. “These people have been stalling for years and they don’t want to pass the law.”

Photo from the demonstration in support of Palestine in downtown Tunis on Saturday, May 15, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

The law against normalization between Tunisia and Israel, was first proposed as a constitutional amendment during the writing of the constitution in the 2012-2014 National Constituent Assembly’s tenure. It apparently did not pass at the time due to the lead governing party Ennahdha not lending their support to the measure. Another legal text criminalizing normalization was later proposed as a draft law on December 15, 2020 by 26 MPs of the Democratic bloc.

“As a support to our people in Palestine, the law to criminalize normalization needs to pass,” demonstrator Houda Chehidi, A Tunisian activist and former student activist, told Meshkal.

The issue of normalization made headlines again this March when Tunisian company Randa, which manufactures couscous and pasta, was found to be selling its products to Israel via France according to a leak published on March 20 by the investigative website Al-Qatiba. The Tunisian government subsequently announced it would open an investigation into the case, according to Commerce Minister Mohamed Boussaid in a hearing in parliament on April 12.*

Photo from the demonstration in support of Palestine in downtown Tunis on Saturday, May 15, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

Palestinians living in Tunis also said that they think Tunisia can support the Palestinian cause by taking steps to stop normalizing relations.

“Even if we are late because of the government of Ennahdha and the pretext of corona[virus] lockdowns…we say that normalization should not go through Tunisia and the Tunisian people,” Myassar Atyani, a former Palestinian prisoner in Israeli prisons who works at the Union of Palestinian Women at the Palestinian Embassy in Tunis, told Meshkal at the demonstration that took place downtown on Saturday.

Aside from criminalizing normalization, Elwaer added that Tunisia can take other steps to play a role in the current moment.

“We demand that Tunisia has a role in breaking the siege on Gaza, because what is happening in Gaza today is a massacre and it is not reasonable to keep watching,” Elwaer said.

Demonstrators Confront French Embassy, Interior Ministry

Saturday’s downtown demonstration was called for by 26 organizations and social movements as well as 10 political parties. Participants marched down Bourguiba avenue, stopping to protest at the Embassy of France, a country that has banned protests in support of Palestine. In front of the French Embassy demonstrators also called for the release of George Ibrahim Abdallah, leader of the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions and who has been serving a life sentence in French prison since 1984 for a number of alleged assassinations of US and Israeli officials.

Demonstrators also tried to march past the Interior Ministry, but police forces prevented them from passing, using pepper spray on demonstrators at one point.

People marching downtown chanted numerous slogans including: “The people want to criminalize normalization;” “Resistance. Resistance. No reconciliation or compromise,” and “To Quds [Jerusalem] we will go, martyrs in millions.”

A Supermodel Banned from Instagram

A second Tunis demonstration which took place in front of the Palestinian Embassy in the Mutuelleville neighborhood at 3 p.m. was organized by individuals, including actress, supermodel, and activist Azza Slimene. Slimene had 1.4 million followers on Instagram but was blocked from the platform on May 13, one day after posting a live video on the platform where she interviewed a civilian in Gaza.

“What happened is that campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter got a huge echo and exposed [Israeli] crimes and the truth they were trying to camouflage…we were only able to achieve this virtually and that’s what made them block our accounts in coordination with the Instagram, Facebook and Twitter administrations,” Slimene told Meshkal, laying the blame on Israel.

Supermodel Azza Slimene demonstrates in front of the Palestinian Embassy in Tunis on Saturday, May 15, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

Social media companies have since claimed that their censorship of pro-Palestine posts was due to technical errors, a claim reported as fact in several major U.S. news outlets. Instagram, for example, claimed that posts tagged with “Al Aqsa” were taken down because Al Aqsa is also part of a name of an armed group; however, several people have had posts removed or taken down even without mentioning Al Aqsa. The new outlet the Intercept reviewed internal Facebook documents showing Facebook has secret policies for moderating content relating to Israel that suppresses criticism of Israel.

Slimene told Meshkal she did not believe the excuse about technical errors and believes Instagram, owned by Facebook, sided with Israel in what she points to as the online media war.

“This made us write to them [the social media companies] and expose their administration and their loyalty to the usurping entity [Israel], which made them give us back our platforms,” Slimene told Meshkal at the demonstration near the Palestinian Embassy in Tunis.

Slimene’s Instagram account was restored on May 14.

Slimene splits her time between New York and Tunis. Asked by Meshkal about the potential professional consequences of her publicly using her platform in support of Palestine, Slimene said: “I honestly do not care about what I am going to lose compared to what Palestinians have lost…I no longer think about my interest in front of fair causes that I believe in, I don’t want to be selfish.”

“Our dignity is more important…this is better for me than fear, humiliation and normalization,” Slimene added.

Different Demonstrations, Different Political Positions

The demonstration in front of the Palestinian Embassy included more slogans in support of Hamas, as well as more religion-focused than the demonstration in downtown Tunis.

Slogans raised at the Embassy demonstration, like the downtown demonstration, included calls for Tunisia to criminalize normalizing its relations with Israel, but in contrast there were also chants supporting military resistance factions, namely the Al-Qassam brigades, the military wing of Hamas.

Photo from the demonstration in support of Palestine near the Palestinian Embassy in Tunis on Saturday, May 15, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

“Write it down. What a shame! They sold Al-Aqsa for dollars,” and “From water to water…Palestine is Arab,” were two of the chants Meshkal heard at the Embassy demonstration.

“We chose the Embassy to affirm our recognition of the right of Palestinian people to self-determination, in acknowledgment of the sovereignty of the state of Palestine, supporting its unity, and as a salutation to the resistance,” Ines Chihaoui, who describes herself as a feminist and human rights activist, told Meshkal.

But some demonstrators at the downtown march were critical of the choice to hold a demonstration in front of the Palestinian Embassy, noting that officials in the Palestinian Authority have coordinated closely with Israeli officials in policing the West Bank following the 1993 Oslo Accords.

“The Embassy of Palestine, these people are the same who were involved in security coordination [with Israelis]…and suppressing the Palestinian people,” demonstrator at the downtown march Elwaer told Meshkal.

But others downplayed the differences among those who came out to support Palestine in the demonstrations.

“Tunisia has always been supportive of Palestine,” said Mahmoud Insaiw, a Palestinian university student from Gaza studying in Tunis. “All of the political spectrum are out [in the street… from left to right for the sake of Palestine.”

“One of my friends came from Gabes to support Palestine, and this is a very beautiful stance we notice from the Tunisian people,” he added.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified the Minister of Commerce as Noomane El Euch instead of Mohamed Boussaid. El Euch was the MP who questioned Boussaid about the issue prompting his response.