PARIS, Jan 6: European governments and Jewish associations were preparing on Tuesday for a possible surge in anti-Semitic violence as Israel’s invasion of Gaza stirred community tensions.

France, home to Europe’s biggest Arab and Jewish populations, fears an increase after unidentified attackers rammed a car into a gate outside a synagogue in the southern city of Toulouse late on Monday and set it on fire.

No one was hurt, but the ugly incident revived memories of a sharp spike in anti-Semitic crimes in 2002, against the backdrop of earlier fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is touring the Middle East to seek support for a new Gaza ceasefire, issued a statement condemning the attack. “The president of the republic believes that our country will not tolerate international tension mutating into communal violence,” he warned.

Sarkozy called for France to unite behind his diplomatic search for peace, dubbing this the “only possible response and dignified attitude for our country faced with the tragic circumstances in the Middle East”. Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie branded the attack ‘stupid and revolting’ and added: “My concern is that the situation should not degenerate in our country, that the violence not be imported.” In neighbouring Belgium, a government spokesman said security forces were taking precautions as street protests against Israel’s campaign in Gaza grow in size and in anger.

“We note that the situation is becoming more explosive,” he said.

Scuffles broke out last week in the Belgium port city of Antwerp, which has large Jewish and Muslim communities, following a pro-Palestinian march. On Tuesday, community leaders issued a joint appeal for calm.

“The Jews and Muslims of Antwerp do not share the same views on what is happening in the Middle East, but that is no reason to bring the conflict here. We are all Antwerpers, Flemish, Belgian and neighbours,” it said.

Across the Channel in Britain, a spokesman for a group that monitors anti-Semitic attacks said violence against Jews and their property was running at four times the normal level since the Gaza campaign began.

“Over the last week, we’ve now seen over 20, perhaps 25, anti-Semitic incidents that appear to be related to the violence in Gaza and southern Israel,” said Mark Gardner of the Community Security Trust.

Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to the European Union, had no doubt that Monday’s attack in Toulouse was linked to rising anger among France’s five million Muslims at news coming from the conflict.

“Look at the awful incident in Toulouse with this car rammed into a place of worship, which is unacceptable, but a result of images from Gaza,” she told RMC radio.

France, once the colonial ruler of several territories in the Mediterranean, is home to millions of Muslims and Jews, who often live alongside one another in the suburbs of major cities.

In 2000, with the outbreak of the second intifada or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, the leaders of France’s 600,000 Jews complained of a spate of assaults and attacks on their cemeteries and synagogues.

By 2002, as fighting raged in the Middle East and Afghanistan and the United States prepared its invasion of Iraq, the number of recorded anti-Semitic attacks had jumped from 32 to 193 per year.

Now, with Israeli tanks once more in action in Gaza, street demonstrations against the war have begun to trigger outbreaks of violence. On Saturday, a mob of protesters burned cars and looted Paris jewellers.

At some point last week vandals also smashed part of the Wall for Peace sculpture in the garden opposite the Eiffel Tower, targeting a panel marked ‘Shalom’ and ‘Salaam’, the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace.—AFP