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One man was hit by a rock and another was escorted from the scene as a clash between Palestine and Israel supporters turned violent on the streets of Caulfield on Friday night.
About 400 people gathered for a protest and counter-protest, which started near the Burgertory store on Glen Huntly Road which had been destroyed by a fire in the early hours of Friday. While the store was part of a chain owned by Palestinian-Australian Hash Tayeh, police said they believe the blaze was not religiously or politically motivated.
About 400 people demonstrated on the streets of Caulfield with a number of protestors clashing with police.Credit: Simon Schluter
About 100 people gathered near the shop after 7pm on Friday before moving south along Hawthorn Road to Princes Park, where angry scenes kicked off as the crowd swelled and dozens of police worked to keep the two groups apart. At least one man was pepper sprayed by police before the crowd dispersed about 9.30pm.
Police said one man was removed from the area but no arrests were made as members of each group hurled abuse at the other across Hawthorn Road, leading them to close the street and halt trams and traffic. There were about 200 people on each side, police said.
Police said a woman was arrested and a number of people detained after a separate earlier clash between two groups outside Burgertory involving about 15 people. Police have not determined the circumstances of the altercation which became physical and involved members from both sides trading insults.
The Free Palestine Melbourne group, which organised the rally, released a statement on Saturday apologising for the evacuation of a synagogue on the other side of Princes Park as a result of the protest.
Ahead of the protest, Tayeh – who had earlier said the fire at his store appeared to be a hate crime – urged supporters not to gather there.
“There is no benefit to us protesting at the Caulfield store because some people out there will purposely try to bait you into doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing, and then they’ll use that against you,” he said in a statement on social media. “We want peace.”
Victoria Police Inspector Scott Dwyer told reporters on Friday afternoon that he was “very confident” the fire was not motivated by prejudice. On Saturday, police said the investigation into the cause of the fire at the takeaway food shop was ongoing.
The state MP for Caulfield, deputy Liberal leader David Southwick, said what happened on Friday evening was a disgrace.
“To enter the heart of Melbourne’s Jewish community, terrorise people outside their synagogue, and throw rocks at Jews is appalling beyond words,” Southwick said in a statement posted to social media. “This is not the Victoria I know and love.”
Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the violence in caulfield was unacceptable. “There is no place for violence, no place for antisemitism and no place for Islamophobia in Australia,” she said in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, on Saturday morning.
“People come to Australia because they want to live in a country that is peaceful, tolerant and respectful. We all must protect that.”
On Saturday, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria and Community Security Group Victoria released a joint statement published by Australian Jewish News following the altercation.
A car displaying a Palestinian flag passes a group waved Israeli flags in Caulfield.Credit: Simon Schluter
They said members congregating at a synagogue near Princes Park were asked to return home for their own safety.
In a statement posted to its Facebook page, Free Palestine Melbourne said it had chosen Princes Park as a “neutral public area” and apologised for holding the protest in support of Burgertory and its staff near the synagogue.
“Organisers were unaware that there was a synagogue across the park … We apologise to the Jewish community for the protest location that led to the evacuation of the synagogue, for any fear they may have felt and for the cancellation of Shabbat,” the statement said. “It was never out intention to disrupt or intimidate Jewish worshippers.”
Shabbat is a holy day of rest observed by Jews from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday each week. Free Palestine Melbourne said its demonstration had ended at 8pm and that tensions escalated after that.
Police separate the two groups as clashes over Gaza broke out near Princes Park in Caulfield.Credit: Lachlan Abbott
“This was not a protest in support of Palestine, rather a solidarity protest with victims of an anti-Palestinian hate crime in Australia,” the group said. “Hash Tayah and all Palestinians have every right to expect that they are free to live and work without racism or hatred.”
The Jewish Community Council of Victoria and Community Security Group Victoria said the police presence along Hawthorn Road had largely managed to keep the protest under control.
“[The protest] created a heightened sense of fear and anxiety in our community and was highly disruptive for local residents,” the statement said.
The statement urged members to “continue advocating for our community, for Israel and for the safe return of the hostages while being aware of their personal safety”.
“We urge the community to refrain from any activity which heightens tensions or puts your personal safety at risk,” it said.
“We must go about our lives knowing that the Victorian Jewish community is proud and strong, and we have many organisations and individuals working tirelessly to support us.”
The clashes on Friday night follows the arrest of at least four people during a pro-Palestine rally at Flemington Racecourse on Melbourne Cup day. Free Palestine Melbourne has arranged another demonstration in Melbourne on Sunday.
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