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Europe Sees a Tinderbox in Its Streets

Conflict: Spate of anti- Semitic attacks has officials worried about roxy fighting between Jewish and Arab groups.

April 04, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — With synagogues ablaze in France, firebombs defacing Jewish property in Belgium and Orthodox Jews under attack on the streets of Berlin, Europeans have been given notice that the raging violence in the Middle East threatens their own peace and security.

Germany, France and the Benelux countries are home to vibrant Jewish communities and large groups of Arab immigrants who are increasingly at risk of becoming proxy combatants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Western countries appear helpless to intervene.

European Union leaders, meeting in emergency session in Luxembourg on Wednesday, called for a continental initiative to dispatch mediators to a blood-soaked region where U.S. diplomats have so far failed to ease the violence. But the vague plan being hashed out was clearly hobbled by the pressure to be evenhanded while condemning Israel's campaign against the Palestinians.

In France, scene of the worst anti-Semitic outbursts in Europe during the last week, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin deployed 1,100 national guard troops to bolster security around Jewish religious sites and prevent attacks by emboldened vandals. President Jacques Chirac condemned the recent attacks on synagogues, cemeteries and kosher food shops as criminal acts "unworthy of France."

"Passions that flare up in the Middle East must not flare up here," Jospin warned. "Even if we have the largest Jewish community in Europe and one of the largest Arab-Muslim communities on the European continent, we must not import this violence."

Chirac urged EU colleagues at the Luxembourg meeting to send a delegation to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to defuse the conflict.

But the EU foreign ministers did more to expose their uncertainty over how to intervene than to draft a coherent strategy for easing tensions.

While agreeing to send EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique to the region, the European diplomats mostly criticized U.S. efforts at containing the violence as ineffective and too tolerant of the Israeli crackdown on Palestinians.

European leaders have been much more vocal than their U.S. allies in criticizing Sharon's attempts to isolate and exile Arafat.

"It is clear [U.S.] mediation efforts have failed and we need new mediation," European Commission President Romano Prodi told journalists.

But Prodi also made it clear that the EU was unwilling to use its clout as Israel's most important trade partner to pressure Sharon into withdrawing forces from Palestinian territories. Neutral Switzerland, by contrast, warned that it was reconsidering economic and military cooperation with Israel in view of what it sees as the systematic violation of Palestinian human rights.

The Mideast flare-up is believed to be spurring attacks on Jewish targets in Europe, including an incident in the Belgian city of Antwerp on Wednesday in which unidentified attackers hurled two Molotov cocktails at a synagogue. The vandals caused little damage and no injuries.

On Sunday night, two visiting U.S. Orthodox Jews were beaten on Berlin's fashionable Kurfuerstendamm shopping street. On Tuesday, vandals painted a swastika on a Jewish memorial in Berlin, and others managed to lob a firebomb into the Charlottenburg Jewish cemetery on Saturday despite a heavy police presence there and at all other Jewish religious sites in the city.

"The events in the Middle East have given right-wing extremists the impression they can lash out because they think there is now greater sympathy" for their acts against Jewish people and property, said Henning Riecke, an analyst with the German Foreign Policy Society. "They think they are taking advantage of an opportunity."

Ali Maarouf, a spokesman for a coalition of more than three dozen Arab groups in Berlin, expressed concern that the recent outbursts of anti-Semitic violence could discredit the rightful aspirations of the Palestinian people and weaken international resolve to come to their aid.

"Such attacks are damaging to our just fight against the occupation in the Middle East and against the worst attacks of Israel for a long time," Maarouf told the Berliner Zeitung daily. "By such actions, the public is being distracted from the main problem."

Germany is host to the fastest-growing Jewish community outside Israel, with immigrants from Eastern Europe swelling the ranks from barely 30,000 a decade ago to more than 100,000 today. But refugees and asylum seekers from Arab countries outnumber them tenfold.

A strong pro-Palestinian bias was clearly visible over the weekend when thousands who gathered for traditional Easter human rights demonstrations demanded that Israel withdraw from Ramallah and other Palestinian cities and condemned U.S. tolerance of Sharon's retaliatory offensive following a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings.

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