LONDON ־ The opening performance of an Israeli dance troupe at the Edinburgh International Festival was disrupted four times last night, as protesters in the audience shouted "free Palestine."

The Batsheva Dance Company members stopped as the protesters were removed by security, but then continued. The disruption was not a surprise, as pro-Palestinian activists had announced it beforehand.

An Israeli Embassy spokesman said that it was clear the demonstrators were "not motivated by any desire to help the Palestinians or advance peace, but only to sow hatred.

"We are delighted the audience gave Batsheva repeated standing ovations. We call on Britain to condemn disturbances to Israeli cultural performances. We are committed to ensuring that Israeli-British cooperation will continue to flourish."

The show, which was attended by Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat and Israeli ambassador to Britain Daniel Taub, has been dogged by controversy since it was announced.

The invitation to Batsheva drew harsh criticism from cultural Scottish icons after it was extended, and prompted an online campaign entitled "Don't dance with Israeli Apartheid." In addition, media outlets in Edinburgh began pressuring the festival's director, Jonathan Mills, to cancel Batsheva's scheduled appearances.

Supporters of the boycott justify their call by claiming that Batsheva often receives the support of Israel's Foreign Ministry when performing abroad, though according to an Israeli diplomat, it did not receive official Israeli financing for appearing in Edinburgh.

The festival's management has maintained that it defends the right of all artists to have their voices heard, regardless of nationality, creed or culture.

But in a letter published in the Herald Scotland this week, a group of 10 artists wrote that they do not accept the assertion "that art can be divorced from politics."

"The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs states on its website that Batsheva is 'the best known global ambassador of Israeli culture,'" the letter said, adding that Palestinian artists "are targets of violence, arbitrary arrests and deportations. Israel's three-tiered system of occupation, colonization and apartheid ruthlessly suffocates the livelihoods of Palestinian communities, including the right to artistic and cultural expression."

The letter, which called upon the festival to withdraw the invitation to Batsheva "even at this late stage" was signed by national poet Liz Lochhead and authors Iain Banks and Alison Louise Kennedy, among others.

Lochhead said that while she originally hesitated to sign the letter, a visit in June to the West Bank helped her decide. "Having seen how Palestinians are treated like non-humans, I believe we must use sanctions in the way they were used to bring apartheid to an end in South Africa," she said.

Batsheva is performing an hour-long production called "Hora" at the festival. It is directed by the company's founder, choreographer and artistic director Ohad Naharin. Batsheva will be performing the show for three consecutive nights at the Playhouse theater. Activists from the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign plan to demonstrate outside the theater during each of the performances.

SPSC Chairman Mick Napier said that Livnat's presence "is sucking politics into the auditorium."

A similar protest attempt failed some three months ago, when activists failed to disrupt the performance of Israel's national theater, Habima, at the Globe Theatre in London, during a production of The Merchant of Venice.