PARIS — Thousands of people attended France’s largest pro-Israel rally since the launch of the Israel Defense Forces’ offensive in Gaza.
The crowd, estimated by police at 8,000, gathered near Israel’s embassy in Paris’ 8th Arrondissement under heavy police guard Thursday, shouting “long live Israel” and singing the French and Israeli anthems while waving signs with slogans like “Gaza hostage of Hamas” and “We protest for peace” and both countries’ flags.
The gathering Thursday was the first time that CRIF, the umbrella organization representing French Jewish groups and communities, convened a large event in support of the Jewish state since the launch on July 8 of the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas.
Paris has seen dozens of anti-Semitic incidents since then, both during and after unauthorized protests against Israel. Nine synagogues have been targeted. Hundreds of riot police in Paris deployed near the Israeli Embassy Thursday.
Organizers warned protesters in fliers handed out at the rally not to respond to “provocations by counter demonstrators.”
Titled “Rally of Friends of Israel,” the gathering’s main message was that Israel has a right to defend itself, according to the organizers.
The gathering was held “because we affirm that Israel has a right to defend itself against blind attacks against its population,” organizers wrote, and “because Hamas is a terrorist group that has taken the Palestinian population hostage.”
Serge Salfati, a leader of the far-right Jewish Defense League of France criticized CRIF’s decision to hold the rally, at the police’s recommendation and for safety reasons, inside a confined space instead of outside at a march.
“When pro-Palestinians march against the law and against Israel, I am supposed to be confined away from the public eye three weeks too late, and am being deprived my right to march,” he said in explaining his decision not to attend.
The French Jewish Defense League was nonetheless represented at the rally, Salfati said.
The demonstration happened amid persistent reports the Jewish Defense League faces a government ban. JDD militants stepped in to assure security at synagogues during pro-Gaza protests, but were blamed for provoking violence at pro-Palestinian rallies.
France has both the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Western Europe, and the Gaza war has raised tensions to their highest in years.
Roger Cukierman, head of CRIF said that Israel has the “right and duty to defend its citizens.”
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said groups “that can pose problems” can be banned.