Police have defended their actions in arresting a man who carried an Israeli flag to a pro-Palestine rally in Sydney “for his safety” as local tensions over the Israel-Gaza conflict boiled over on Monday.
About 1,000 people marched from town hall to Sydney’s Opera House. Video of the protest appears to show the crowd at one point chanting antisemitic slogans, including “fuck the Jews” and “fuck Israel”.
The Sydney Opera House had been illuminated in blue and white on Monday night to pay tribute to the victims of the Hamas attack on Israel, in which hundreds of civilians were killed.
The Israeli government has retaliated against the Hamas attacks by pummelling Gaza with hundreds of airstrikes. Officials there have reported at least 600 deaths.
Footage taken at the rally and shared to social media on Monday evening shows a man who appears to be holding an Israeli flag being arrested by three police officers, two of whom are holding his arms and walking him away from the site.
One of the officers identifies himself and tells the man he is being arrested for a “breach of peace”. The man replies, “Oh come on, mate. You can have my flag.”
The New South Wales police assistant commissioner, Tony Cooke, told reporters on Tuesday that the man’s presence at the rally posed a “significant risk” to his own safety and the safety of others who were there.
“He was removed for his safety. He’s able to collect his flag from Sydney City Command and that has been made clear to him,” Cooke said.
In anticipation of the rally, police warned the Jewish community to avoid the Opera House.
Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler asked why the protest was allowed to go ahead and why “the only person arrested was someone carrying an Israeli flag”.
“It is appalling that at a time when Hamas is murdering Jews on the streets of Israel, the streets of Australia have been deemed unsafe for Jews,” he said on Tuesday.
Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-head Alex Ryvchin told the ABC the police advice for the Jewish community to stay away from the city centre was “lamentable” but understood the reasons for it.
“I bear no grievances towards them but I think it’s a lamentable state of affairs when you have members of the Jewish community in the city unable to go to our CBD, unable to gather and rally to observe an act of solidarity such as this,” he said.
Rally co-organiser and speaker, Fahad Ali, has claimed NSW police told him they would not help him shut down the “minority” of the group taking part in antisemitic chants.
“I intervened to shut down anti-semitic chants from a group of idiots who were in the minority,” he posted on Twitter.
“Police told me to my face that they would not assist.”
He said the behaviour of that group was “not only vulgar, but completely selfish”.
“It has served as a distraction from the immense human suffering in Gaza and calls for genocide and collective punishment by Israeli officials,” he said.
Protesters were also filmed throwing flares outside the Opera House. Others were filmed chanting “free, free Palestine”.
Assistant commissioner Cooke on Tuesday refused to comment on whether he thought the Opera House should have been lit up, as he defended the decision of police to approve the rally.
He said he hadn’t spoken to the NSW police minister, Yasmin Catley, “at all” before the protest.
Catley told parliament on Tuesday she had been in contact with the acting commissioner, David Hudson, and with the police throughout Sunday and Monday and was “kept abreast of the events as they unfolded last night”.
Cooke said he was aware the conflict between Israel and Palestine was “a strongly emotive issue” and the force believed the best option was for them to manage the movement of people from town hall to the Opera House.
He said he was “very disappointed” some people had ignited flares and that police would review the CCTV footage to determine whether to arrest anyone else.
Cooke said he had conversations with members of the Sydney’s Jewish community “right throughout the day” on Monday, but he hadn’t spoken to anyone from the Palestinian community.
The premier, Chris Minns, defended the police’s decision to allow the protest to proceed, having become aware of the change in the protesters plan late on Monday afternoon.
“It was an operational decision. It was about the safety and security of the city,” he said on Tuesday morning.
“But I do want to make it clear that it’s obviously an intolerable situation.”
Asked if the protest going ahead was appropriate, Minns said he wanted police to charge anyone caught breaking the law.
“If there were acts that meet the threshold for charging in relation to racial vilification or incitement of hatred or incitement of violence, action will be taken,” he said.