RISHON LEZION Israel (Reuters) - Israeli police on Sunday blocked more than 200 far-right Israeli protesters from rushing guests at a wedding of a Jewish woman and Muslim man as they shouted "death to the Arabs" in a sign of tensions stoked by the Gaza war.
Several dozen police, including members of the force's most elite units, formed human chains to keep the protesters from the wedding hall's gates and chased after many who defied them. Four protesters were arrested, and there were no injuries.
A lawyer for the couple, Maral Malka, 23, and Mahmoud Mansour, 26, both from the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv, had unsuccessfully sought a court order to bar the protest. He obtained backing for police to keep protesters 200 metres (yards) from the wedding hall in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion.
The protest highlighted a rise in tensions between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel in the past two months amid a monthlong Gaza war, the kidnap and slaying of three Israeli teens in June followed by a revenge choking and torching to death of a Palestinian teen in the Jerusalem area.
A group called Lehava, which organized the wedding demonstration, has harassed Jewish-Arab couples in the past, often citing religious grounds for their objections to intermarriage. But they have rarely protested at the site of a wedding.
The groom told Israel's Channel 2 TV the protesters failed to derail the wedding or dampen its spirit. "We will dance and be merry until the sun comes up. We favor coexistence," he said.
'DEATH TO THE ARABS' THREATS CHANTED
Protesters, many of them young men wearing black shirts, denounced Malka, who was born Jewish and converted to Islam before the wedding, as a "traitor against the Jewish state," and shouted epithets of hatred toward Arabs including "death to the Arabs." They sang a song that urges, "May your village burn down."
A few dozen left-wing Israelis held a counter-protest nearby holding flowers, balloons and a sign that read: "Love conquers all."
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, sworn in last month to succeed Shimon Peres, criticized the protest as a "cause for outrage and concern" in a message on his Facebook page.
"Such expressions undermine the basis of our coexistence here, in Israel, a country that is both Jewish and democratic," Rivlin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud bloc, said.
Lehava spokesman and former lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari denounced Jews intermarrying with non-Jews of any denomination as "worse than what Hitler did," alluding to the murder of 6 million Jews across Europe in World War Two.
A surprise wedding guest was Israel's health minister, Yael German, a centrist in Netanyahu's government. She told reporters as she headed inside that she saw the wedding and the protest against it as "an expression of democracy."
Arab citizens make up about 20 percent of Israel's majority Jewish population, and the overwhelming majority of Arabs are Muslims. Rabbinical authorities who oversee most Jewish nuptials in Israel object to intermarriage fearing it will diminish the ranks of the Jewish people.
Many Israeli couples who marry out of their faith do so abroad.
Malka's father, Yoram Malka, said on Israeli television he objected to the wedding, calling it "a very sad event." He said he was angry that his daughter had converted to Islam. Of his now son-in-law, he said, "My problem with him is that he is an Arab."