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In Europe, More Understanding for Israel’s Plight, Especially in the East

July 26, 2006
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During a BBC World Radio call-in program this week about the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, a Dutch caller expressed sentiments that once were unspeakable in Europe. “The Americans have been propping up Israel for 60 years and it just doesn’t seem to have worked. There is constant war there, reflecting what happens when you create a country surrounded by hostile neighbors,” the caller said. “European guilt over World War II is wearing thin, we can’t accept this anymore.”

While not everyone shares the caller’s attitude, there’s no doubt that Western Europeans are less likely to support Israel in its current conflict with Hezbollah than Americans — and that criticism of Israel is much more widespread.

In Central and Eastern Europe, conversely, governments and the media are far more supportive of Israel, perhaps because of those regions’ different histories and smaller Muslim populations.

In London, the Independent newspaper was in no rush to exonerate Israel. The paper suggested this week that Israel may be guilty of war crimes, and Monday’s front page was nearly filled by a photo of a blood-splattered Lebanese woman and her son.

Some Europeans who oppose Israel’s actions have taken to the streets.

Thousands of protesters across Britain demonstrated against Israeli attacks on Lebanon. On Sunday, rallies that took place in London and other major cities were organized by groups including the Muslim Association of Britain and the Stop The War Coalition.

London police estimated that about 7,000 people participated in the march, which passed by the U.S. Embassy.

“Hezbollah is not a terrorist group, and I am here to glorify the Lebanese resistance movement,” said George Galloway, a member of the British Parliament and a longtime critic of Israel and the United States.

Police in Berlin estimated that 2,700 people took part in an anti-Israel protest last Friday. Most participants reportedly were of Arab origin.

The event was organized by a coalition of German and Arab organizations that distanced themselves from anti-Semites and neo-Nazis. Organizers reportedly attempted to prevent individuals from chanting “Down with Israel” or “Down with the USA.”

On Saturday, smaller demonstrations against Israel’s attacks were held in Bremen, Dusseldorf and Frankfurt.

Several left-wing German groups are joining with some Jewish groups to hold a pro-Israel demonstration Friday in Berlin.

French media have not been as critical of Israel as in the past. In fact, on July 20, three major French newspapers — Le Monde, Le Figaro and Liberation — included an insert titled “Hezbollah Is a Threat to Peace,” published jointly by several French Jewish organizations and the European Jewish Congress.

“Israel has a legitimate right to defense and is leading a military action proportionate to this threat,” the pamphlet stated.

The French government has been in a tricky position: The country is home to the largest number of Arabs in Europe, around 6 million, and the country’s leaders therefore have gone out of their way to demonstrate solidarity with Lebanon.

Almost as soon as Israel responded to Hezbollah’s July 12 attack that precipitated the crisis, in fact, President Jacques Chirac called Israel’s reaction “aberrant” and “disproportionate” and demanded immediate negotiations toward a cease-fire.

Nevertheless, France has not directly criticized Israel, and at a local level the support has been unequivocal. The mayor of Montpellier, Helene Mandroux, traveled this week to Tiberias, Montpellier’s twin city, which has been bombed by Hezbollah.

Further north, the French city of Nancy yesterday offered shelter for the month of August to children from its twin city, Kiryat Shmona, which is under near-constant bombing from Hezbollah.

According to a poll published in the Journal du Dimanche, 39 percent of 957 French citizens asked said they blamed Hezbollah for the current crisis, while 30 percent blamed Israel. Twelve percent blamed Iran, 5 percent blamed Syria, and 12 percent refused to answer.

In Holland, Jews and other Dutch citizens took to the streets over the weekend for pro-Israel and anti-Israel demonstrations. More than 40 Jewish and Israeli organizations located in the Netherlands organized a pro-Israel, anti-terrorism rally.

Protesters drowned out Edith Mastenbroek, a Dutch lawmaker in the European Parliament, when she tried to argue that Hezbollah has been criticized too much and that Israel should negotiate with the group.

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose government holds the six-month rotating E.U. presidency, accused Israel of applying the principle of “20 eyes for one eye.”

But new E.U. members from Central and Eastern Europe demonstrated far more understanding for Israel’s position.

Israeli diplomats in both Poland and the Czech Republic boasted to JTA about living in the E.U. country most supportive of Israel.

About 200 Arabs demonstrated in front of the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw last Friday, but almost no native-led protests occurred across the region. Another 200 or so demonstrators — supporters of an association known as the Lebanese Club — protested Monday against Israel in Prague, according to the Czech News Agency.

The Czech Foreign Ministry, however, released a statement condemning Hezbollah’s attacks, calling for a release of kidnapped Israeli soldiers and supporting Israel’s right to self-defense. While calling on Israel to “show regard” for Lebanese civilians and infrastructure, the ministry also called for Hezbollah to be disarmed in accord with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559.

The Czech press has run many editorials empathizing with the Israeli position. In the most popular news daily, Mlada fronta dnes, one staffer wrote last Friday, “Anytime something happens in the Middle East, many people elegantly kick Israel for taking things to the extreme.”

He added, “Maybe it would better to think about other things, like why Hezbollah has not been disarmed a long time ago.”

Both the Czech Republic and Poland have both been fighting — so far without success — to have the European Union label Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Polish newspapers have been careful to explain the causes of the conflict and the history of Hezbollah attacks against Israel, while also showing pictures of civilians suffering in Lebanon. The country’s leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, ran an editorial by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who wrote that even peaceniks support Israel’s strikes on Lebanon because they’re purely defensive.

Israel’s deputy ambassador to Poland, Yossi Avni-Levy, said Muslim communities in the region are small and that left-wing style sympathy with Palestinians and hostility to Israel is a Western European phenomenon that had no roots in the former Eastern bloc.

“The Poles know what many people in Britain, Spain and France don’t want to see. They understand that the campaign against Hezbollah is a campaign against the terrorist bombings that have also occurred in Europe,” Avni-Levy said.

The Polish government has privately expressed support for Israel’s effort to rout Hezbollah, Avni-Levy said, though Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski has made very few public comments on the issue, except to say he is studying the situation.

“We think this is because the government is still evacuating Poles from Lebanon,” Avni-Levy said.

Hungarian newspapers have been balanced on the war, said Yahel Vilan, a counselor at the Israeli Embassy in Hungary.

“They always show pictures of northern Israel under attack along with the pictures of Lebanese fleeing their homes,” he said.

Hungarian television programs have had the Israeli ambassador on daily since the conflict began, while the Lebanese ambassador has been on only once.

There has been a single demonstration of about 20 Arabs outside the Israeli Embassy in Budapest, which has received letters of support from numerous Israeli friendship associations, mostly made up of non-Jews.

(JTA correspondents Dinah Spritzer in Prague, Vanessa Bulkacz in London, Toby Axelrod in Berlin, Lauren Elkin in Paris, Rachel Levy in Amsterdam and William Echikson in Brussels contributed to this report.)

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