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Originally published December 20, 2010 at 4:00 PM | Page modified December 21, 2010 at 3:12 PM

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Metro's acceptance of 'Israeli war crimes' bus ad draws complaints

An advertisement alleging "Israeli war crimes" won't appear on the sides of some Metro Transit buses for another week, but it's already ignited a political firestorm.

Seattle Times staff reporter

An advertisement alleging "Israeli war crimes" won't appear on the sides of some Metro Transit buses for another week, but it's already ignited a political firestorm.

The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, which bought the ad, says it's intended to break through what it calls the silence over Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians.

Others have organized a campaign to block the ad, which they say will inflame bigotry against Jews and Jewish organizations.

King County Executive Dow Constantine was advised by county lawyers that the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits Metro from rejecting the ad if the transit agency continues to accept ads from other advertisers, spokesman Frank Abe said Monday.

While declining to discuss his feelings about the ad, Constantine said in a statement that interest groups sometimes leverage a small ad buy into news coverage "worth many times their investment ... ."

"These provocative ads bring in a negligible amount of revenue, but cost hundreds of hours staff time to address the intended controversy — time that is better spent providing bus service."

Metro spokeswoman Linda Thielke said the transit agency received 600 e-mails protesting the ad between Friday, when KING-TV broke the news, and noon Monday. A large number of phone calls about the ad were interfering with Metro's ability to answer phone inquiries about bus schedules, she said.

The large ad is scheduled to appear on the sides of 12 buses serving Seattle routes starting Monday. The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, which is seeking tax-exempt nonprofit status, paid $2,760 for the ad to run for one month.

A photo purportedly showing children looking at a collapsed building during Israel's three-week air-and-ground offensive on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, appears next to these words:

"ISRAELI WAR CRIMES

"YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK

"www.Stop30Billion-Seattle.org"

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"Stop30billion" is a reference to $30 billion in military aid that the ad sponsor says the United States has pledged to Israel over the next decade.

The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign said the bus ad was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of Israel's assault on Gaza after rocket attacks that Israel blamed on Hamas militants.

"The ads are to raise awareness that our tax dollars are being spent in one-sided support of the state of Israel and particularly of those policies of Israel that violate human rights and maintain the bad situation, which is that one people has power over another," said Ed Mast, spokesman for the group sponsoring the ad. "We're all committed to the simplest of solutions, which is equal rights."

Mast is a Seattle playwright and longtime activist against U.S. military involvement in Israel and Iraq.

Richard Fruchter, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, said Metro shouldn't have accepted the ad.

"We certainly as an organization support the First Amendment right to free speech, but we feel that this violates Metro's own policy that running ads shouldn't insult specific groups" to the point that public safety could be threatened, he said.

"I think that this is an ad that's designed to insult Israelis and the 50,000 members of the Jewish community, many of whom support Israel," Fruchter said.

Metro policy bars advertising "so insulting, degrading or offensive as to be reasonably forseeable that it will incite or produce imminent lawless action ... ." Metro was advised by the Prosecuting Attorney's Office that the ad doesn't violate that guideline, Thielke said.

Fruchter said the Jewish Federation was "particularly sensitized" by Naveed Haq's fatal shooting of one woman and wounding of five others at the organization's building in Seattle in 2006. "Sadly, we have had to put money toward security at all our Jewish community institutions," Fruchter said. "It means that we're always on guard."

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, in a letter before Constantine's statement Monday, urged the executive to re-evaluate Metro's decision to accept the ad, saying "dangerous language can create dangerous environments in a society."

Von Reichbauer wrote that the ad appears to violate Metro's prohibition against advertising that would incite " 'a breach of public safety, peace and order.' ... I am a strong advocate of freedom of speech and a strong believer of common sense."

Pamela Scharaga, a Port Townsend jewelry designer, wrote to members of the King County and Seattle councils that if the ad runs on buses, "I for one will give up excursions to Seattle."

Asked about claims that the ad could incite violence, Mast said, "My experience is that those who want to defend Israel right or wrong want also to stop dialogue, stop discussion, stop education, stop public awareness, and will use a wide range of tactics, and this is one."

The Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign's website says the group opposes racism "against Jews, Arabs and any other people. Criticism of Israel is not criticism of the Jewish people."

Metro asks that citizens who wish to express their views on the ad send e-mail to customer.comments@kingcounty.gov.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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