It's certainly not a new phenomenon in Germany for feathers to be ruffled every time bombs fall or rockets fly in the Middle East. It is unusual, though, for German police officials to use force to enter into an apartment and remove an Israeli flag from a bedroom because people protesting the Gaza Strip invasion on the street below are bothered by it.
But that's what happened this weekend in Duisburg in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Around 10,000 people had gathered on Saturday morning at the central station in the city, located in the Ruhr region, to protest against Israel's course of action in the Gaza Strip. The protest, organized by the Islamist group Milli Görüs, which, although legal, has been monitored for years by German domestic intelligence agencies in charge of observing potentially radical or fundamentalist groups.
After a short time, the protest passed along one of the city's main thoroughfares. At a house on the corner, protesters spotted two Israeli flags -- one hanging from a balcony and the second from the window of a bedroom inside the apartment. Twenty-five-year-old student Peter P.* and his 26-year-old girlfriend had mounted them there.
'Suddenly I Saw a Police Officer in my Bedroom'
It wasn't the first time, either. At the beginning of the year, P. flew the Israeli flag on the day commemorating the Holocaust. And in May, he flew the flag for several weeks because the state of Israel was celebrating its 60th birthday. For years, Hamas fired rockets at Israel, and few people took notice, P. told SPIEGEL ONLINE, explaining his reasons for flying the flag. This time around, he said, he did it to express "solidarity with the sole democracy in the region."
P. also knew that on that day people participating in the protest march against the Israeli offensive would go past his house. But he said he was also concerned about what he saw as the "greatest onslaught of anti-Semitism in Europe since 1945," namely marches against Israel's actions that included anti-Semitic hate campaigns that he claims are being tolerated in cities like Paris and London.
As the first protesters recognized the flag, P. and his girlfriend were standing on the street nearby. He said he followed the march because he wanted to document any incidents of anti-Semitism or hate campaigns. He described the sentiment that developed within the crowd as it viewed the Israeli flag as tantamount to that of a "lynch mob." "Death to Israel," some of the protestors shouted. He said the police appeared to be overburdened.
"Suddenly," the student explained, "I saw a police officer on the balcony on the second floor" in the apartment located directly beneath his. The officer ripped down the Israeli flag that had been affixed to P.'s balcony. A short time later he witnessed an officer inside his own apartment taking down the flag that had been hung in the bedroom.
A Hail of Icicles, Nail Clippers and a Pocket Knife
The police's moves caused loud cheering amongst the protesters -- a fact not only reported by the student, but also confirmed in videos of the event that have been widely circulated on YouTube. The incident first came to the attention of the media after journalists at the local blog "Die Ruhrbarone" reported on it. The objects reportedly thrown at the apartment included what appeared to be small chunks of ice, a folded up pocket knife, nail clippers and also what looked like a stone.
P. said he was "shocked" by the incident. Afraid to return to his apartment, he first went to a friend's place nearby. Around two hours later he returned with his girlfriend and an acquaintance -- but he claims youths were still throwing things at the house.
He said he didn't return to the apartment until they had left. A police car passed by and P. asked the officers to come to his apartment. The officers warned that P. and his girlfriend should stay away from the window and that police would watch the house for a few hours.
"I was beside myself," P. said, "I was afraid." Two hours passed without any incident. Then P.'s acquaintance, also in the apartment, went out to the balcony for a smoke and claims he was immediately cursed as a "shit jew".
Two minutes later, the police returned to P.'s door -- and for the second time they did something unexpected. They ordered the acquaintance to leave the apartment.
A Police Apology
The actions of Duisburg officials have since caused outrage -- sparking criticism from the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Rainer Wendt, the head of the German Police Union for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said: "It is intolerable that German Islamists be able to determine police actions." At the same time, he expressed understanding for what he described as a "difficult deployment situation" police officials in Duisburg had run up against. He said it appeared too few officers had been dispatched to the protest. Frank Richter of the Union of Police, another organization representing officers in the state, said the police mission should be explored and clarity brought to the incident.
Initially, Duisburg police defended their actions. In its Monday issue, the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper quoted a police spokesperson stating that the flags had been removed in order to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation. German news agency DDP quoted the spokesperson on Tuesday saying "the right thing had been done here."
But by Tuesday afternoon, the city's chief of police, Rolf Cebin, expressed his apologies for the incident. "I deeply regret the fact that, especially, the feelings of Jewish people were hurt. From the standpoint of the present, it was the wrong decision."
Despite the apology, the row may not be over yet. The state chapter of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) wants a discussion about the police actions to take place in the state parliament in Düsseldorf. "We are going to raise the issue during a meeting of the state domestic affairs committee on Thursday," the party's deputy parliamentary chief, Ralf Jäger, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The central question is this: Why was the potential for danger during the protest so underestimated that police were forced into a situation in which they had to concede to the demands of violent (protesters) rather than (protect) the right to the freedom of speech of others?"
The politician claims that Duisburg police believed 1,000 people would attend the rally, far fewer than the 10,000 who eventually turned up. He claims they should have better predicted the situation and the fact that they didn't raises the question of whether the state's Office of Criminal Investigation had done enough "preparation."
As of Tuesday, Milli Görüs has not yet provided any statement about the incident. The acting spokesperson for the organization's secretary general could not be reached for comment, and the group's office said its chairman was currently outside the country.
On Tuesday, Peter P. said he had obtained the services of a lawyer. He still hasn't been told who will be held responsible for paying for the door broken down by police.
* The name of the main source of this story has been changed at his request by the editorial staff.