PARIS, Feb 16 (AFP) – Political and anti-racist groups said Monday they would hold protests against Israel’s controversial separation barrier as Israeli President Moshe Katzav starts a four-day state visit.
The demonstrations later in the day would be aimed at pressuring French President Jacques Chirac and his government “to demand the destruction of the parts of the wall already built,” a statement from the organisers – left-wing parties and rights groups – said.
The visit by Katzav, the first by an Israeli head of state since 1988, was expected to be dominated by the barrier issue and by the perception in Israel that France is experiencing a surge in anti-Semitism.
Chirac has already labelled the barrier illegal, adding his voice to international concerns that the forced separation of Israel from the Palestinian community in the West Bank will worsen the Middle East conflict.
Israel insists that the wall is designed to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers, but Palestinians argue that it is a land grab and a form of apartheid. Israel has said it will boycott an International Court of Justice hearing into the matter that starts February 23.
While the barrier issue will likely prove a thorny issue during Katzav’s visit, both Israel and France were making efforts to smooth over the often acrimonious argument over whether anti-Semitic attacks were on the rise in France.
“The French government is the only government in Europe to really fight against – effectively, I hope – this phenomenon,” the Israeli ambassador to Paris, Nissim Zvili, told Europe 1 radio.
That position marked a change from comments from other Israeli officials who have contended that anti-Semitic incidents in France doubled last year, despite official French figures showing the opposite.
For his part, Chirac told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth last week that France would crack down on any form of anti-Semitism, and that its reputation in Israel was unfounded.
“I am told that in the streets of Tel Aviv, in newspaper cartoons and in conversations, the image of France as an anti-Semitic country is gradually spreading. These caricatures deeply hurt French people,” he said.
Katzav, who arrived shortly before midday aboard an El Al jet, was greeted at the airport by French Foreign Trade Minister Francois Loos and the main Paris rabbi David Messas, as French and Israeli national anthems were played.
Heavy security has been deployed for his visit, which will see him meet Chirac later Monday, then Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Tuesday.
He will also see parliamentary leaders and the French finance and interior ministers, while his entourage of Israeli corporate chiefs will explore business opportunities.
Zvili said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may follow up Moshe’s visit to France with one of his own “towards April”.
Chirac’s spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, said: “Up to now, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its repercussions have cast a shadow over bilateral relations between France and Israel. This state visit will mark a change in the relations between the two countries.”
Subject: France news