Reporting from Seattle — Forget billboard battles over the existence of God — holiday advertising proposed for next week on Seattle buses zeroed in on the mother of all arguments, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Reacting to an international outcry, King County executive Dow Constantine cancelled both the original proposed bus billboards and a retaliatory response. "Israeli War Crimes — Your Tax Dollars at Work," was set against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings and dazed civilians in the Gaza Strip. The proposed response decried "Palestinian war crimes" and featured an Israeli bus in flames.
"The escalation of this issue from one of 12 local bus placards to a widespread and often vitriolic international debate introduces new and significant security concerns that compel reassessment," Constantine said.
Officials said they were putting an interim halt on all new noncommercial advertising on King County buses. They specifically rejected ads from both camps on the Israeli-Palestinian debate.
The announcement brought expressions of relief Friday from Jewish organizations, which had flooded King County offices with e-mails, letters and calls.
But the sponsor of the Israel "war crimes" advertisements, the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, accused the county of quashing free speech on a legitimate issue of U.S. foreign policy in the face of one-sided political pressure.
"The county gave in to bullying. Opponents who want information about Israeli war crimes silenced mounted a campaign to silence us. That seems outrageous to us," said Edward Mast, a Seattle playwright and pro-Palestinian activist.
Mast is a spokesman for the "Stop30billion" group, which collected $3,000 in donations for the ads. The "30 billion" refers to the amount of aid in U.S. dollars that the group calculates has gone to the Israeli military over the last decade.
The ad campaign was intended to mark the second anniversary of Israel's assault on Gaza in December 2008, which was aimed at quashing rocket attacks in Israeli civilian areas. The militant Palestinian group Hamas was responsible for many of the attacks, which between 2001 and 2009 killed at least 28 Israelis and injured several hundred more.
More than 1,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, died in Israel's three-week assault on Gaza.
Ronald Leibsohn, chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, said Jewish organizations were not opposed to discussing U.S. aid to Israel. But, he said, they were leery of plastering potentially inflammatory ads prominently on buses in a city that has seen anti-Semitic violence and vandalism.
In July 2006, a gunman targeted Seattle's Jewish Federation. Naveed Afzal Haq shot six women, killing one of them, while shouting: "I'm a Muslim American! I'm angry at Israel!" Haq was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
This year, one day before Judaism's holiest day, Yom Kippur, swastikas appeared on Northwest Yeshiva High School.
"Our concern has to be based on the incidence of violence and threats that have existed in the last few years in Seattle," Leibsohn said.
"The sponsors of the ads said they intended to stimulate active conversation, but we think it was meant more to stimulate a hatred or certainly anger toward Israel," he said. "That was not the proper venue for this kind of debate, which we are open to having, but not on the sides of buses."
Leibsohn said the federation also opposed the "Palestinian war crimes" counter-advertising campaign proposed by the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
"They were highly inflammatory also," he said. "It had just snowboarded into a very dangerous situation of shots being traded across the bow."
Similar, but milder, campaigns against U.S aid to Israel have been launched this year in other cities, including Albuquerque, Chicago and San Francisco, campaign officials said.
Constantine, the King County executive, said officials feared the billboards could lead to disruption of transit service.
"I have consulted with federal and local law enforcement authorities who have expressed concern, in the context of this international debate, that our public transportation system could be vulnerable to disruption," he said in a statement.
"Given the dramatic escalation of debate in the past few days over these proposed ads, and the submission of inflammatory response ads, there is now an unacceptable risk of harm to or disruption of service to our customers should these ads run."