Teary-eyed, keffiyeh-wearing activists protested Israel's bombardment of Gaza at the UN climate talks in the UAE Sunday -- a tame but rare display in a country where demonstrations are banned.
Hindered by UN restrictions preventing them from raising Palestinian flags or chanting certain slogans, more than 100 activists in a COP28 "Blue Zone" venue, managed by the world body and not local authorities, demanded a Gaza ceasefire.
"We say to the Palestinian people that the international community may have forgotten you, but you are not alone," said Asad Rehman, lead spokesman for the Climate Justice Coalition.
"Free Palestine," he told a sobbing crowd that echoed his chant before they were shushed because of UN guidelines prohibiting the naming of states, leaders or companies in activist actions within the COP venue.
Sunday's solidarity gathering, the largest yet, still pales in comparison to mobilisations that have swept other parts of the world since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7.
But it stands out for the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms, which bans protests and prohibits speech that is deemed to create or encourage social unrest.
With activist actions kicking off on Sunday, the fourth day of the climate talks, it was not the Emirati authorities that tightened the protest space, but strict UN guidelines that governed previous COPs.
Organisers had to request permits, identify action zones and appeal for approval for banners, slogans and chants -- some of which were banned.
"We were not allowed to name states or raise (Palestinian) flags," said Abderraouf Ben Mohamed of the Debt for Climate group, prompting activists to rely on the watermelon -- a symbol of the pro-Palestinian movement -- as a way to bypass restrictions.
- 'Insensitive' -
Damian Godzisz, a staff member in the UAE's COP28 team, said he was told to remove a Palestinian flag and keffiyeh scarf attached to his bag at the security check to the Blue Zone.
"I find it insensitive that while other nations can display their national attire, the Palestinian flag and keffiyeh are restricted," he said.
Hamas militants from Gaza launched an unprecedented attack on southern Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.
In response, Israel vowed to destroy Hamas and began an air, sea and ground offensive that has killed more than 15,500 people, mostly women and children, according to Gaza's Hamas government.
The war has cast a long shadow over the climate talks in Dubai, and has deeply impacted the Palestinian Authority's (PA) COP28 delegation, which had been upbeat about its first-ever COP pavilion.
Only 10 representatives managed to fly out for the event, with most cancelling their participation, Hadeel Ikhmais, a climate expert with the PA, told AFP.
"It was really tough for us to come here, and up to the last-minute we were reconsidering our participation," said Ikhmais, who had to embark on a nearly 11-hour journey stymied by checkpoints from her home in Bethlehem to Jordan's airport to catch a flight to Dubai.
- 'Killed in cold blood' -
"What does climate justice mean, what does international law mean, when Palestinians are killed in cold blood and the world is just watching?" Ikhmais asked.
"I want to go back. Honestly, we are counting the days just to go back home."
At the Israeli pavilion, just a few metres (yards) away, a book of posters of those held hostage by Hamas was put on display beside a large banner that read: "Bring them home now."
Maya Kadosh, Israel's national coordinator for COP28, sported a dog tag carrying the same message and said she sensed bias among activists attending the climate conference.
"I wish they would understand the Israeli suffering," she told AFP.
"They stand for human rights, but as long as the people are not Jewish," Kadosh said.
"I think if people want really to help free Palestine and free the people of Palestine, they should help the people of Palestine get free from Hamas."
Israel had been planning a 1,000-strong representation at COP28, but the war reduced that figure to around 100, including some 30 officials with the government delegation, she said.