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Mixed anti-war/pro-Palestine message causing unease in peace movement

LONDON—While "Don't Attack Iraq" and "Stop the War" are the favorite slogans at anti-war demonstrations here and around the world, many protesters are marching to the beat of a different drum.

Thousands of demonstrators, primarily Muslims, carry "Freedom for Palestine" placards in the anti-war protests, and say they are there to call attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"It's important for me to support my nation, my people," said London journalism student Sara Alheeti, 20, a Palestinian who joined the Feb. 15 march that drew at least 750,000 people to central London and millions more to cities around the globe.

In Europe, the mixed anti-war/pro-Palestine message at marches is causing unease and disruptions in the peace movement.

In Paris on March 22, three Jewish students—one of them wearing a yarmulke—were beaten by participants in a pro-Palestinian section of a peace march attended by 90,000 demonstrators. The attack drew words of condemnation from Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe.

In London, some traditional left-wing anti-war activists say they are unhappy that Britain's main anti-Iraq war organization, the Stop the War Coalition, has teamed up with a Muslim organization sympathetic to a banned fundamentalist Muslim group in Egypt.

"The Stop the War demonstrations should simply be about the war; what you think about Palestine should not be relevant," said Mark Thomas of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, a British Socialist group that objected when the coalition joined forces with the Muslim Association of Britain, bringing many pro-Palestinian demonstrators to the streets.

Britain's oldest anti-war group, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, another major sponsor of the marches, recently issued a statement to "clarify" that it "retains its independence" from the Stop the War Coalition. Campaign chair Carol Naughton disputed press reports suggesting that the statement reflected her members' unhappiness that their anti-war message was being diluted by Palestine.

While "people who have campaigned for a state of Palestine and a state of Israel have a valid case, it is not in the forefront of our campaign," she said. "Our focus at the moment has to be the war in Iraq."

Stop the War Coalition official John Rees said there are no regrets about linking Iraq and Palestine. He noted that both President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair began prominently pushing a new Middle East peace plan just as war with Iraq approached.

"The point I was certain that we were going to war," Rees observed sarcastically, "was when another Middle East peace plan was announced." He added, "If they can make this link I don't see why we can't."

The Muslim Association of Britain makes a similar point. "We don't shy away from it, and think it's a major issue," said spokesman Anas al Tikriti. "Even Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair have highlighted it."

Bush has said eliminating Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq would help pave the way for creation of a Palestinian state. Blair has connected the "road map" to peace in the Middle East with support for the ouster of Hussein.

The Muslim association has been criticized by some anti-war activists not only because of its emphasis on the Palestinian issue but because of its association with the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group banned in Egypt following government accusations that it is using demonstrations over Palestine and Iraq to foment a revolt.

The Muslim Association's Web site prominently mentions the Brotherhood's president, Muhammad Ma'Mun Al-Hudaybi, who in the London Arab newspaper Al-Hayat has praised suicide bombers in Israel and the anti-Jewish terrorist group Hamas.

Those associations—even if indirect—have especially caused unease for Europe's Jewish organizations.

By linking up with the Muslim Association, the Stop the War Coalition "has switched off many Jewish people who otherwise might be prepared to join the coalition or the anti-war marches," said director Neville Nagler of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the elected organization representing Britain's Jewish community.

Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the Paris-based European Jewish Congress, complained that "people who are coming honestly to demonstrate for peace find themselves trapped in a demonstration which turns out to be not only anti-American and pro-Saddam but also anti-Israel."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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