NEW YORK(–Sixteen activists were arrested after a March 27 demonstration in front of the New York branch of Israel’s Bank Leumi.

A spokesman for the group, Ryan Senser, said they had gathered to raise awareness about the escalation of violence against Palestinians by Israelis since the war in Iraq.

“This war is realizing the worst fears of Palestinians,” protester Mark Field said, adding, “While the world’s attention is focused on Iraq and Arabs are cast as the enemy, Israel has stepped up its assaults on Palestinian towns.”


Chanting “Occupation is a crime, from Iraq to Palestine,” the protesters shut down New York City’s famed Fifth Avenue for over an hour, explaining to on-lookers that the war on Iraq places the lives of Palestinians at greater risk. “Bank Leumi is a pillar of Israeli finance, with $51 billion in assets. The illegal occupation of Palestinian towns, and the killing of civilians are supported by Bank Leumi’s investments in the Israeli military economy,” protester Rachel Fineberger, a Jewish human rights activist said.

Dr. Nasser Al-Kidwa, observer for Palestine at the United Nations, expressed similar concerns that war in Iraq might be used to escalate Israel’s attacks on Palestinians. Speaking to journalists at the UN, he called for immediate implementation of the “road map” for peace that President Bush presented on March 14.

Mr. Bush said he supported the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005. The “road map” comes with demands for concessions from both sides: The Palestinian government must stop all violence against Israel, and Israel must stop expanding its settlements. There was also a demand that the Palestinian Authority appoint a prime minister with full authority over the government.

Dr. Al-Kidwa stressed that the new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, 67, “would have full autonomy to fulfill his duties.”

On March 19, the Palestinian Parliament overwhelmingly approved a bill defining the role of the new prime minister, with 69 “yea” votes and one abstention.

Prime Minister Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is a “quiet and intellectual” man, according to Palestinian journalists. They say he is not widely known because he does not go to rallies and has kept his “hands clean of violence.”

Observers say Mr. Abbas raised eyebrows by recently criticizing the way the Palestinian uprising had been allowed to deteriorate into suicide bombings against Israeli targets, giving Israel pretext to ravage the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He has called for an end to anti-Israeli attacks.

Mr. Abbas has been a central figure in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and has President Yassir Arafat’s endorsement.

Israeli papers reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approves of Mr. Abbas and that the two have had private conversations in the past. But, according to recent articles and information provided by Dr. Al-Kidwa, the Israeli prime minister has demanded changes in criteria that would lead to acceptance of Mr. Bush’s road map.

Mr. Sharon is saying the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem would be symbolic. In addition, he has demanded that the Palestinians drop their insistence on the right of return for Palestinian refugees, said to number over six million.

“Mr. Sharon knows that no Palestinian can accept these conditions. This is why he is demanding them,” writes Professor Yasir Suleiman, director of the Edinburgh Institute for the Advanced Studies of the Arab World & Islam, based at Edinburgh University in England.

He said the Israelis have signaled that progress in the implementation of the road map to peace will depend on the total cessation of violence on the part of the Palestinians.

“He (Sharon) knows that this is not possible as long as his repressive policies are in place. This is the kind of get-out-clause Mr. Sharon wants (so he can) walk away from any peace negotiations,” Prof. Suleiman wrote.

Dr. Al-Kidwa said the leadership in his government is ready to discuss the road map to peace. He said they want to restore a semblance of normality to the shattered lives of the Palestinian people.

“I fear continued delay on beginning discussions allows Mr. Sharon more time to use the war in Iraq to escalate attacks on Palestinian people,” Dr. Al-Kidwa stressed.