Gaza War Sparks Rise in Europe Violence

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Thomas Haentzschel / AP

A broken window is seen at the center of the Jewish community in Rostock, northern Germany

Could the bloody Gaza confrontation spread to Europe? As the number of reported acts of aggression triggered by the conflict steadily grows in France, the U.K. and other European countries, that's a concern many are starting to express. "The more frequently you have members of communities staging attacks against one another as proxies for violence in the Middle East, the greater the risk becomes they'll one day adopt those assumed Middle East roles as sworn enemies here in Europe for good," says a French justice official, referring to friction between European Jewish and Muslim communities. "Things are bad enough contained to the original theater of conflict. No one wants to see that situation definitively imported here."

In some ways, it already has. There have been 55 acts of violence or aggression against Jewish individuals or installations in France since the Israeli offensive on Gaza began in late December, according to the Union of French Jewish Students. This week began with firebomb attacks on synagogues in the suburbs of Paris and Strasbourg. Similar fire-bombings or attempted arson have occurred in Sweden, Britain and Belgium. Three ethnic Arab students in Paris were attacked by seven alleged members of the Jewish Defense League. (The JDL denied any involvement.) French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie this week responded to the beatings by pleading that neither "our Muslim compatriots" nor French Jews should be targeted as a means of replicating the Gaza conflict in France. (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)

All told, the number of verbal or physical assaults on Jews and ethnic Arabs that European authorities link to the Gaza violence has now passed 100 across Europe.

Given those numbers, concern is growing that the clashes could continue even when the Gaza assault ends. That's especially true in France, whose six million Muslims and more than 600,000 Jews constitute the largest of each respective community in Europe. Memories of the violence inspired by Israel-Palestinian clashes in 2002 and by Israel's offensive in Lebanon in 2006, prompted quick appeals for calm after the latest incidents. French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared "our country will not tolerate international tension mutating into inter-community violence", and promised no perpetrator of such trouble would "remain unpunished.

France is far from alone in its concerns over strife in Gaza. Belgian authorities have stepped up policing and surveillance of Jewish installations after signs of rising outrage among Arabs in Belgium. Authorities in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden are also keeping a watch on local Muslim and Jewish communities to avert any friction from exploding.

British officials say they are concerned about the possible consequences the Middle East conflict could have in the U.K. — not only because of the uptick in reported violence against Jews or Jewish property since the start of the Gaza onslaught, but because it could further radicalize extremist sectors in the 1.6 million British Muslim community. That's a concern that senior British Muslims have themselves. "I am very concerned indeed that the events in Gaza could well be used by those people who want to peddle pernicious extremist views to draw particularly vulnerable young people into that kind of extremism," British Communities Secretary Hazel Blears told the BBC on Jan. 12, a week after media reports that a radical group had published an internet hit list of prominent British Jews.

As British Justice Minister Shahid Malik notes, the assault on Gaza is causing collateral damage even among non-violent, moderate British Muslims. "There is a real feeling of helplessness, hopelessness and powerlessness among Britain's Muslims in the context of Gaza," Malik told The Guardian. "The sense of grievance and injustice is both profoundly acute and obviously profoundly unhealthy."

See pictures of Israeli soldiers sweeping into Gaza.

See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.