Gaza raises coexistence worries in Spain’s North African cities

Police deployed to protect Jewish community in Melilla

Authorities in Spain are concerned about the impact events in the Middle East could have on relations between communities in the country’s two cities in North Africa.

The Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, situated on the Mediterranean coast bordering Morocco, have large Muslim communities which traditionally have coexisted peacefully with the Catholic population. However, with both cities also having small Jewish communities, there have been signs of that social peace being tested since the conflict between Hamas and Israel erupted.

Last Wednesday, a pro-Palestinian protest took place in Melilla, with participants marching though the streets and burning an Israeli flag. Local media reported that some demonstrators sang anti-Israeli chants outside a synagogue and intimidated local shop owners who are part of the 1,200-strong Jewish population.

Juan José Imbroda, the mayor of Melilla, invoked the long-standing coexistence between religions in the city as he called for calm.


“May the peace that we have achieved through the wisdom of all the people of Melilla continue,” he said in a statement posted on social media. “Overseas conflicts, however painful they may be, should not affect this exemplary coexistence that we have.”

He added: “We are all from Melilla, we are all Spanish.”

Police have been deployed to ensure the safety of the city’s Jewish community.

Melilla and Ceuta have belonged to Spain since the 15th and 17th centuries, respectively, and they are the only land borders between Africa and Europe. Morocco contests Spain’s claim to both territories.

The mayor of Ceuta, Juan Jesús Vivas, said the events in Melilla were a worry and warned that his own city is also at risk of facing social unrest generated by developments in the Middle East.

“I hope that in this drama there is an agreement between the [Jewish] and Muslim communities of Ceuta in favour of peace,” he said.

Events in Gaza and Israel have already triggered a diplomatic dispute in Madrid. Last week, the Israeli embassy in Spain accused unnamed members of the Spanish government of “aligning themselves with Isis-type terrorism” and inflaming anti-Semitic sentiment.

The allegations appeared to be aimed at members of the far-left Podemos party, the junior partner in the coalition government, whose leader Ione Belarra had condemned Israel’s response to Hamas’s attack and called for the country’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to be investigated for war crimes.

Responding to the embassy, Ms Belarra, who is also social affairs minister, said: “Denouncing this genocide is not ‘aligning yourself with Hamas’, it is a democratic obligation.”

The Spanish foreign ministry responded with a strongly worded statement in which it rejected “falsehoods” the Israeli embassy had aimed at members of the government. However, foreign minister José Manuel Albares also appeared to overrule Ms Belarra by saying that only he and the Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, were qualified to speak about foreign policy issues.

Regarding the situation in the Middle East, Mr Sánchez said that “of course Israel has the right to defend itself, but only within the bounds of international humanitarian law, which does not support the evacuation of Palestinians from Gaza, as the UN has said.”

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain