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Thousands took to the streets in Brussels on Sunday to call on European leaders to support an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, which has been under intense Israeli shelling in the past weeks after an unprecedented Hamas attack.
“Palestinians need to be re-humanised. Nobody listens to those who defend Palestinian rights,” one of the organisers, Nathalie Janne, told The National.
The death toll in Gaza rose to over 4,700 on Sunday, most of them women, children and the elderly, the enclave’s Health Ministry said.
Following a Hamas incursion on October 7 that left over 1,400 Israelis dead, mostly civilians, Israel announced a total blockade of the Gaza Strip and said it was preparing for a ground invasion.
Belgian police said that 12,000 people attended the protest, while organisers said the figure was as high as 40,000.
The rally took place in front of EU institutions at Brussels’ Schuman roundabout and is the first major pro-Palestine protest in the Belgian capital since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
Ms Janne, who is in charge of advocacy for the Middle East and North Africa region at Belgian non-profit organisation CNCD 11.11.11, said the demonstration was organised by around 50 civil society groups, including the Belgium-Palestine association, the General Union and the Christian Labour Movement.
Participants chanted slogans such as “free, free Palestine” and “boycott Israel” while waving Palestinian flags.
“What Hamas did is horrible, but what Israel has done for years is equally horrible. I think that Palestinians aren’t getting enough attention,” said Anselm Eeckeloo, 29.
“Every day, I see images that I wish I didn’t see,” said Rachida, who declined to give her surname. “What is happening to Palestinians is inhuman. I want to die with them, it hurts me so much.”
The European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, has come under fire for her response to the war, which has been widely seen as pro-Israeli.
European leaders have so far refused to call for a ceasefire, and have invoked Israel’s right to defend itself.
“We want a ceasefire as fast as possible, but also an end to the structural causes of violence, which are the occupation, colonisation, and Israel’s apartheid policy,” said Ms Janne.
Human rights organisations have accused Israel of apartheid for its systematic oppression of Palestinians, a claim which is rejected by Israel.
Pro-Palestine protests also took place over the weekend in other European capitals, such as Paris, where they had previously been banned.
Officials had said they feared “anti-Jewish attitudes” and the glorification of Hamas’ attacks.
In Brussels, 18-year-old protester Ilyas Daali, who attended with his family and friends, said that banning pro-Palestine protests went against free speech. “It’s shocking,” he said. “It’s important to support Palestine.”
Organisers said they had clearly warned participants against anti-Semitic acts or hate speech, which have increased across Europe since October 7. They said they would refer any such incidents to the police.
For protester Rasha Omar, viewing the images of devastation coming out of Palestine is like reopening an “open wound”.
Both of her parents were displaced in what Palestinians call the “Nakba” – meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic – the 1948 Arab-Israeli war during which around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled.
“To see the people in Gaza going through the same thing that both my parents are going through – it’s just insane. I don’t accept that,” said Ms Omar.
“My name is Rasha Hamdan,” continued Ms Omar. “But I have changed my name to Omar because this is the name of my father. He was buried in the UAE because he could not be buried in Palestine.”
There are widespread fears among Palestinians that Israel’s aim in the continuing war is to permanently displace them from the Gaza Strip. Some protesters in Brussels held signs that read “second Nakba”.
Ms Omar said she feared an erasure of Palestinian identity.
“You don’t hear the word Palestine any more. You hear it’s a war against Hamas or Gaza. There is a fragmentation, an erasing of the identity of Palestine and Palestinians.”