Police have pepper-sprayed protesters as angry clashes over Gaza broke out in Caulfield on Friday night near a fire-ravaged burger store.
The heated scenes erupted on Hawthorn Road near the Burgertory store – owned by a Palestinian Australian – that became a focal point of community tensions over the Gaza conflict, after a blaze on Friday that police believed was not politically motivated.
Police closed Hawthorn Road near the burnt-out shopfront after a pro-Palestinian group gathered on that side of the road and a pro-Israel crowd on the other – both hurling abuse.
Free Palestine Melbourne organised the rally in the heart of Melbourne’s Jewish community, which stunned locals watching on.
About 9pm, a group of pro-Palestinian protesters stormed a police line and officers used pepper spray against young men who rushed towards the pro-Israel crowd. By 9.30pm, the Palestinian group had dispersed, while a handful of counter demonstrators remained.
The angry scenes kicked off about 7pm near Princes Park – just south of the burger store – as more than 100 people chanted while dozens of police watched on.
The confrontation had threatened to turn physical several times as members of each group approached the other before police intervened, using the road to separate the two.
“You dogs” some mask-wearing Palestinian protesters yelled. “No room for hate” was occasionally chanted on a loudspeaker. Across the road, the group waving Israel flags shouted back “Shame on you” and “go back home”.
Earlier, several cars flying Palestinian flags drove by honking their horns as a contingent waved Israeli flags and chanted outside the burnt out shop further up the road. At one point, a ute pulled up in front of the group and an occupant engaged in a brief shouting match with them before the car accelerated away. Other drivers honked support for those waving Israeli flags.
Victoria Police detectives at the scene.Credit: Simon Schluter
Hash Tayeh, the Palestinian-Australian founder of Burgertory, said staff at his Caulfield outlet had been previously threatened and told they “worked for a terrorist”, and he had attracted criticism online for attending pro-Palestine rallies in the CBD amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.
Earlier on Friday, Tayeh said he was “gutted” after he woke up to a phone call to learn about the suspicious blaze at the store on the corner of Glenhuntly and Hawthorn roads, which he thought appeared to be a hate crime.
Victoria Police Inspector Scott Dwyer told reporters in the afternoon he was “very confident” it was not an attack motivated by prejudice, but would not “go into the details of the incident or what evidence has been gathered”.
“All I can say is, I want to tell people I am very confident that this is not linked to a religious or political incident,” he said. “I would warn people not to make assumptions or draw lines of inquiry that aren’t there between this incident and anything else that is occurring.”
After earlier reports that a protest was planned outside the destroyed fast-food outlet on Friday night, Tayeh had urged supporters not to gather at the store.
“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 late. “We want peace.”
Dwyer confirmed there had been a separate clash on the street outside the burger shop on Friday afternoon.
Anti-Defamation Commission chair Dvir Abramovich claimed the scuffle – which was filmed – was an antisemitic attack.
“Something very wrong is happening in the city I love,” Abramovich said.
Ten fire crews responded to the blaze about 4.30am on Friday. No one was inside the shop at the time.
Tayeh, who opened his Caulfield store three years ago, released a statement linking the fire to criticism of his public comments and social media posts about the Israel-Hamas conflict, which he said only advocated for a ceasefire and an end to the violence in the Middle East.
“Today’s arson attack will not waver my calling for peace and will not silence me,” Tayeh said in a statement.
“I am deeply troubled by the spread of rumours suggesting that we harbour antisemitic sentiments. I cannot stress enough that this could not be further from the truth.
“My participation in pro-Palestinian rallies was driven by a desire for peace and a ceasefire, not violence or division. I have lost 38 relatives in Palestine and I want the violence to stop.”
Tayeh said he was confident the police would find the perpetrators behind the fire.
The Islamic Council of Victoria and several Palestinian groups released a statement calling on authorities to act after the fire, adding their “grave concern that this was an intentional act, amounting to a hate crime against [Tayeh] as a Palestinian and Muslim”.
Tayeh, who was born in Jordan, was captured on video leading a chant of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” on a megaphone at a march in the CBD last month.
Burgertory founder Hash Tayeh.Credit: Nine
The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based Jewish advocacy group, says on its website that the phrase “is an antisemitic slogan commonly featured in anti-Israel campaigns”.
Tayeh said that the chant “had been misinterpreted by some as a call for harm”. “I assure you, for us, it is a call for human rights and freedom, echoing the sentiments of Palestinian academic Yousef Munayyer,” he said.
In a joint statement on Friday, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) and Community Security Group Victoria said the latter – which promotes “a community culture of safety and security” – had “increased their operations across the community” and that would continue through the weekend.
The statement asked people to refrain from circulating details of incidents on social media and “to avoid spreading incorrect information and creating unnecessary fear”.
In a separate statement, JCCV president Daniel Aghion said, “nothing justifies any form of violence against any individuals or property”.
“We deeply respect free speech, and appreciate the ongoing work being done by Victoria Police to protect the community.”
Tayeh told The Age that he had asked prominent people in the Jewish community to tell him when they held their rallies, “so I can also come in solidarity and show my respect to them and their loved ones and their friends”.
“I wouldn’t just say that I’m a supporter of Palestine. I’m a supporter of peace,” Tayeh said.
Premier Jacinta Allan called for compassion in a statement issued late Friday after the Caulfield protests flared.
“I reaffirm my call for Victorians to show each other love, care and support in these difficult times,” she said.
“It is our diversity that makes us great, and our compassion that unites us – there is never any place for antisemitism or Islamophobia in Victoria.”
The MP for Caulfield, deputy Liberal leader David Southwick, called for calm while acknowledging many were concerned about the suspicious fire.
“I know tensions are running high and people are feeling vulnerable, but we must remain calm and allow police to investigate,” Southwick said.
Victoria Police said detectives are still keen to speak to any witnesses to the Caulfield fire or anyone that may have seen any suspicious activity in the area at the time.
Anyone who witnessed the incident, has CCTV, dashcam footage or any other information that could assist police is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential report online.
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