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THE MIDDLE EAST

Activists Decry Israeli Offensive, Recent Anti-Semitism in France

April 07, 2002|From Associated Press

PARIS — Tens of thousands of activists marched through Paris and Rome on Saturday in protests demanding Israel stop its offensive in the West Bank and expressing solidarity with the Palestinians.

More than 20,000 people marched here to the Place de la Bastille, where hundreds of police stood by. Some protesters carried shredded American flags and shouted slogans against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"Sharon Assassin" and "Arabs, Jews together against Sharon," they chanted in the protest, organized by dozens of pro-Palestinian, anti-racist and Communist groups.

International pressure has been growing on Israel to end its operation in the West Bank, launched March 29 after a series of suicide attacks.

In Rome, about 20,000 protesters marched through downtown, ending up at a rally in the Piazza del Popolo, where the crowd swelled to about 50,000 people.

A few marchers at the front of Saturday's procession wore black face masks and bandannas like those worn by Palestinian militants. Others carried banners calling for "Intifada until victory," and chanted for a "liberated Palestine."

Italy's three main unions and two major leftist parties, however, decided at the last minute not to participate in the march, amid criticism of the protest by Jewish groups.

Protester Andrea Parrella expressed some concern about the march turning into a venue for anti-Jewish sentiments.

"I think it's important for me to show my support--these people [Palestinians] have neither land nor water," he said, but added that "there is a risk that this demonstration could be turned into something anti-Semitic."

Other pro-Palestinian marches took place in smaller French and Italian cities.

"We are here to condemn the Palestinian occupation of the territories, but also to condemn the recent racist attack in France, against both Jews and Arabs," said Jean-Claude Vessillier, a spokesman for MRAP, one of France's leading anti-racism groups.

As Mideast violence has escalated in recent weeks, there have been a rising number of arson attacks and vandalism on Jewish sites in France, including cemeteries and synagogues.

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