How Germany deals with the war in Gaza

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent  |  Jan. 14, 2009 at 2:13 PM
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BERLIN, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Germany's foreign minister tries to bring about a cease-fire, peaceful and violent anti-war demonstrators roam the country's streets, and a most unusual orchestra of young Israeli and Arab musicians electrifies crowds at a Berlin opera house -- Germany is dealing with the war in Gaza on multiple levels.

Thundering applause swept Berlin's State Opera Unter den Linden Sunday evening, honoring an orchestra that hadn't even played a single tune yet. It was the message the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brought to this cold Berlin night that resonated so well with the audience.

In a statement that was added to the regular program leaflet, the orchestra's roughly 100 young members of either Israeli or Arab background underlined that they were convinced "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be solved militarily." Rather, "total freedom and equality between Israelis and Palestinians" should be the alternative to terrorism and casualty-heavy military operations.

Conductor Daniel Barenboim, who grew up in Israel, and the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said founded the orchestra, which aims to bring together talented young Arab and Israeli musicians.

While the most recent war apparently hasn't managed to drive a wedge between the musicians, it did cause the cancellation of two shows planned in Qatar and Cairo -- with Berlin chosen as the backup location.

This seems fit: Germany has been quite outspoken in the current conflict.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday returned from a three-day trip to the Middle East. He had met with several leaders to lobby for a cease-fire and said he was optimistic that a halt of the fighting was within reach.

On Tuesday, after a telephone conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Steinmeier in a statement called for a "humanitarian suspension of hostilities" because of a "worsening humanitarian situation" in Gaza.

In his visit to Israel and Egypt over the weekend, Steinmeier launched some nitty-gritty groundwork for a cease-fire agreement that is not so easy to broker:

Israel will agree to a cease-fire only if Hamas is effectively stopped from smuggling rockets and weapons into the Gaza Strip. Observers say much of the smuggling happens at the Egyptian-Palestinian border; Cairo, however, refuses to allow in foreign troops to oversee its borders.

That doesn't forbid "technical assistance," however, and that's exactly where Steinmeier comes in. The German foreign minister had Cairo agree to allow in a German team of security experts to assess ways of improving Egyptian border control.

"There has been clear progress in recent days," Steinmeier said Tuesday of the anti-smuggling consultations. "The next few days will be decisive. It will now be vital for all political stakeholders to work hard to achieve a cease-fire."

Meanwhile, all over Germany a large number of pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and anti-war activists took part in mostly peaceful demonstrations.

Yet some protests did get out of hand. On Saturday in the western German city of Duisburg, a group of roughly 10,000 anti-Israel demonstrators went ballistic in front of an apartment building that had a large Israeli flag attached to a window and another to a balcony.

The heated atmosphere led to an embarrassing move by German police, who were hopelessly understaffed that day: To cheers from the demonstrators, an officer broke into the apartment and removed both flags.

An unnamed source later told German mass daily Bild the move was aimed at defusing the situation and protecting the house from being set on fire, but the Jewish community in Germany protested harshly and received backing from German politicians.

"The central question is: How can it be that the threat potential of a demonstration is so greatly underestimated, and that police are forced into a move that follows the wishes of violent (demonstrators) instead of securing someone's right to freedom of expression?" Ralf Jaeger, a senior lawmaker of the government Social Democrats, asked in an interview with Spiegel Online.

The Duisburg police chief has since apologized for the removal of the flag, saying the situation should have been handled differently. Yet Duisburg should brace for another anti-Israel demonstration planned for this Saturday. Observers expect police this time to answer with a much bigger force to make sure demonstrators remain peaceful.

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