|Pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside the Israeli Embassy in London have been gathering daily since the beginning of the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip. Giora Hirsch|
Deborah, 20, almost didn’t attend a rally in support of Israel the day after a massive pro-Palestinian march turned riotous in the heart of the French capital’s luxury shopping district.
“After yesterday, I was two seconds away from not coming. You never know what can happen,” Deborah said on her way on Sunday toward the Israeli Embassy, where nearly 4,000 people gathered to sing Israeli songs and defend Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Deborah, a French-Israeli citizen who asked that her last name not be revealed, chose to attend despite concerns for her safety after the virulent anti-Israel march numbering 21,000 held Jan. 3. By the night of that march, cars and Israeli flags were burned, and 10 riot police were injured in clashes with 400 to 500 youth wearing kaffiyehs and Palestinian flags.
The violence took place in Paris, near the landmark Galeries Lafayette department store and Place de la Madeleine.
Tens of thousands participated in anti-Israel protests across France on Saturday. Some of the largest demonstrations reached 15,000 in Lyon, according to police.
A pro-Palestinian group that includes France’s Communist Party organized the movement. Its leader, the increasingly popular Olivier Besancenot, told the French daily Nouvel Observateur that Saturday’s marches showed that “France’s opinion cannot be summarized by the opinion of [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy, who rolled out the red carpet” for Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livini during her recent visit to Paris.
No negative incidents were reported in relation to the pro-Israel event. Still, Deborah was one of many participants at the march organized by the Jewish umbrella group CRIF who said they left behind friends who were “afraid” of publicly siding with Israel a day after they saw Haussmann Street covered in broken glass. Two stores were looted and several vandalized by youth who ran through the streets with metal bars, jumping on cars and smashing windows on stores, cars, and a parked bus. Families with young children and elderly members who had participated in the anti-Israel rally had to flee in fear.
Those who turned out for the pro-Israel rally said they were eager to defend the Israeli military, but many also came to express their outrage and concern at the previous day’s events.
“They shouted ‘down with the Jews’ and ‘down with Israel.’ It was horrible. They are anti-Semites!” said Namy, 47, of the pro-Palestinian rally. She declined to give her full name for fear of being identified. “This happened right in the middle of Paris,” Namy said. “They broke one store window after another, all up Haussmann Street. We had to hide in our apartments.”
Anti-Israel sentiment has intensified in England as well. When more than 1 million people marched in central London five years ago to protest against the Iraq war, it was the biggest demonstration ever seen in the British capital. Now the Stop the War Coalition, the umbrella organization that arranged that demonstration and others against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has taken over the planning of protests against Israel’s military action in Gaza.
In the first few days of the Israeli aerial attacks on the Gaza Strip, Muslim organizations held daily protests near the Israeli Embassy in London. A few hundred people took part, most of them Muslims, many Palestinians. The demonstrators carried banners, chanted anti-Israel slogans, and clashed with police as they tried to make their way toward the embassy compound.
In advance of a rally Jan. 3, the Stop the War Coalition took over, calling a news conference with politicians and several celebrities. Buses were arranged to bring in demonstrators from other cities. Protesters were asked to bring “old shoes,” with organizers saying that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has “joined with George Bush in stopping a unanimous call by the United Nations for Israel to stop bombing immediately.”
More than 10,000 people demonstrated, and when police prevented marchers from nearing the gate of Brown’s office, many flung the shoes at police. Now the coalition is planning a Jan. 10 multi-issue gathering that organizers promise will be “the biggest demonstration yet seen” in England “in the cause of Palestinian freedom.”
British troops are not fighting in Gaza, but a look at the organizations that make up the coalition reveals that many are either Muslim or far-left groups with a longtime interest in Israeli-Palestinian issues.
Among the speakers at the Jan. 3 rally was the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who justified Hamas rockets fired at Israeli towns, and called on Britain and other European countries to recall their ambassadors from Israel to protest the attacks against Gaza.