Protesters target Israeli player at ASB Classic

By Steve Deane, Isaac Davison

About 20 protesters are standing outside the ASB Classic tennis tournament demanding Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer quit the competition over the offensive in Gaza.

The 22-year-old had been expected to face a picket line of shoe-waving demonstrators from the group Global Peace and Justice, led by activist John Minto.

Protesters this morning arrived carrying placards with messages such as "bullying is not OK" however plans for a shoe waving or throwing protest have been abandoned.

Police initially tried to move them from outside the tennis centre but Mr Minto said they had the right to take the protest action.

"We think it is extra heavy-handed of ASB Tennis Centre to ask police to act on their behalf and shift them from a public place.

"We are not happy at all about that," Mr Minto said.

After talking to ASB management inside the centre, the demonstrators were allowed to continue their protests.

As extra security precaution, searches were carried out at the main entrance and extra police were on standby.

A lone Israeli demonstrator stood opposite the group with the sign reading "Minto supports Hamas Murderers. Hamas murders hope."

"I'm just supporting peace. It's as simple as that," the protester said.

Yesterday Ms Peer, who is ranked 39 in the world, said her 28-year-old brother had finished his compulsory military service, but had been called up as a reserve.

Though she was worried about him, she was also determined to enjoy her tennis and serve her country proudly on the court.

"What's going on in Israel is not easy for any of us," she said. "I hope it will end as soon as possible.

"I'm just coming here to enjoy playing tennis. That is my main reason, and that is what I am going to do tomorrow."

Peer was surprised to be the target of an anti-Israel protest, and has rejected the call for her to withdraw from the tournament.

"There's nothing to do with what I'm doing in the politics ... I think sport can help solve a lot of those problems."

Tournament director Brenda Perry said security would be beefed up today to cope with the protesters. Anyone trying to protest inside the stadium would be removed.

The Government yesterday appeared to toughen its language on the conflict yesterday, after several days of criticism that it has been too soft on Israel.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully said Israeli attacks on UN facilities in the Gaza strip were of grave concern.

"New Zealand is deeply worried by the mounting humanitarian crisis in Gaza ... We call for Israel to immediately cease military attacks and for Hamas to immediately cease rocket and mortar attacks."

He said New Zealand was continuing to monitor the evolving situation through international aid agencies.

Mr Minto said Peer should withdraw from the Classic to bring attention to the plight of Palestinians.

"She is a high profile figure in Israel, and for her to make a stand would have a significant effect."

Global Peace and Justice was asking demonstrators to bring old shoes to the protest.

"To show the base of your shoe is a grave insult in the Middle East, which is appropriate to her participation in the tournament."

Shoe waving as a form of protest has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the Arab world since Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi last month threw both his shoes at US President George W. Bush.

Mr Minto said that the protest was not a personal attack.

But he criticised Peer's eagerness in performing her own military service.

She began her compulsory service three years ago, excelling in rifle marksmanship. She balanced her commitment as a military administrative secretary with her burgeoning professional tennis career.

When she rose to tennis prominence in 2007 by reaching the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and US Open, she was granted "outstanding athlete status" by the Israeli military, allowing her to focus on tennis while remaining a part-time soldier.

- NZ Herald

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