MILAN, Italy — As Jewish communities across the world mourn the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, tensions are rising in Rome, home to Italy’s largest Jewish community. On Monday night, after the discovery of the teens’ bodies was reported around the world, these tensions erupted in two separate violent incidents in the past few days between pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians. Seven supporters of the Palestinians were hospitalized, two of them with serious injuries, after allegedly being assaulted by supporters of Israel.
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On Tuesday, participants in a demonstration against the Israel Defense Forces recent military operations in the West Bank, held in Piazza Venezia, and in a pro-Israel demonstration in nearby Piazza San Marco at the same time clashed. One pro-Palestinian demonstrator was hospitalized with injuries he said were the result of being punched by “a young Jewish man,” the Italian-language Il Corriere daily reported, despite the prohibition in Italy against mentioning the ethnicity of criminal suspects.
When the news of the Israeli teens’ fate was reported, on Monday evening, Rome’s 15,000-strong Jewish community held a memorial prayer service in the old Ghetto. After the service, a number of the participants marched toward the Palestinian representative office in the city, across the Tiber River from the Ghetto.
The incident apparently began broke when a group of street sellers on the Ponte Fabricio bridge shouted pro-Palestinian slogans at the Jewish procession, and in return were assaulted by marchers. Seven of the merchants, six men and one woman, were hospitalized after telling police officers that members of the Jewish group attacked them. Two sustained serious injuries. The victims declined to file a criminal complaint, but the Rome police are investigating the incident and are searching for the perpetrators.
Both incidents were indeed reported with extreme caution by the Italian media, with most avoiding identifying those responsible as Jews.
Some Jewish community figures fear the assaults could be the work of self-appointed Ghetto patrols: “The merciful understatement of the newspapers – ‘pro-Israel youths beat ...’ – [actually] alludes to a trend of squads that need to be stopped immediately,” tweeted Gad Lerner, a popular Italian-Israeli TV anchor often critical of pro-Israel hardliners.
These incidents were not the first in the Ghetto this year. In January, the left-leaning author Fabio Nicolucci was forced to cancel a presentation of one of his books, “La Sinistra e Israele” (Israel and the left) after violent protests erupted – a woman in the audience, who supported the presentation, was reportedly assaulted and required hospitalization. She pressed charges against her attacker and documented the incident in a letter to Shalom, the monthly newspaper of Rome’s Jewish community, in which she denounced the “shameful situation inside the Jewish community I belong to.”
Earlier in January, four pro-Palestinian activists were beaten by what they described as a gang of “about fifteen young men carrying baseball bats.” The incident took place late at night outside the Portico D’Ottavia, an ancient Roman building inside the Ghetto. The pro-Palestinian youths were walking back home after a night out, when they saw a poster commemorating Ariel Sharon, who had recently passed away, and ripped it off from the wall. Within minutes, they say, a group of armed men appeared and beat them up.
The episode was reported to the police and made national news, published by Il Fatto daily. Jewish leaders have so far denied the presence of gangs inside the ghetto. But some Italian Jews are uncomfortable with the growing tense atmosphere and fear that the situation might get out of control.