A "peace conference" sponsored by the leftist Israeli newspaper Haaretz devolved into violence on Tuesday when an Israeli government official was heckled and then punched in the back by an attendee, according to reports.
Attendees at the Israel Conference on Peace—which was kicked off with an endorsement by President Barack Obama and features a who’s who of liberal speakers—began shouting hateful slogans and then accosted Knesset member Naftali Bennett after he defended the government’s military action, which was undertaken to stop Hamas terrorists from bombarding civilians with rockets.
Left-leaning government officials who spoke at the conference condemned Hamas’ aggression and said that Israel must take action to defend itself from these attacks, a message not necessarily shared by many in the audience.
Haaretz officials—who publish a paper known for its hostility to Israeli military action, sympathy to the Palestinians, and opposition to the current Israeli government—may have been surprised to see their "peace conference" become a platform for condemnations of Hamas and endorsements of Israeli military strikes on Gaza.
The conference opened as Israeli air raid sirens went off, signaling a Hamas attack on Tel Aviv. This followed the launch by Israel of Operation Protective Edge, a narrowly targeted military campaign that comes in response to weeks of rocket attacks by Hamas.
Events at the peace conference became violent just hours after it began when Israeli Economy Minister Bennett, a member of the right-leaning Jewish Home Party, was heckled and assaulted by audience members.
Bennett was forced to halt his speech several times as those in the crowd shouted "fascist" and "murderer," according to the Jerusalem Post, which interviewed Bennett after he was punched by an anonymous attendee.
"I represent a stance shared by millions of people and no one will silence me," he told the Post following the incident.
Peace conference attendees became so disruptive that Haaretz publisher Amos Shocken was forced to issue a public plea for cooperation.
Haaretz later claimed that Bennett brought the attack on himself and exaggerated the assault "to create headlines and mislead media."
"There are people here who agreed to speak to Arafat, but they won't listen to Bennett," he was quoted as saying to the audience by the Post.
Obama helped promote the conference by penning for Haaretz a Tuesday op-ed that called on "all parties" to "exercise restraint" and "be willing to take risks for peace."
Obama’s plea for peace came on the same day that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas defended Hamas’ attacks and stated through a presidential spokesman, "Palestinians have the right to defend themselves by all legitimate means."
Top Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat was originally scheduled to discuss the peace process at the conference, but canceled his appearance at the last minute. Last month an audio recording surfaced of Erekat declaring that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "isn’t worth the bullet" to shoot him.
Israeli officials associated with left-leaning political parties told peace conference attendees that Israel was obligated to attack Hamas, a message that was not particularly well received.
"If I were Israel’s prime minister, I would deal a very heavy blow to Hamas," said Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, the leader of the opposition and one of Netanyahu’s most vocal critics.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a onetime opposition leader known for her fierce criticism of Netanyahu, said Israel must take action to defend civilians from Hamas rockets.
"It is our duty to provide security to our citizens," Livni was quoted as saying at the conference, according to the Times of Israel. "The question is what’s the right way to do that. It very much depends on the extent to which Hamas will not allow Israel’s citizens to live in peace."
Livni’s remarks came during a discussion in which Erekat was originally scheduled to participate.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a onetime member of the left-leaning Labor Party, told the conference that Israel must "respond forcefully" to Hamas’s violent escalation.
"We have to respond forcefully, with determination and reason," Barack was quoted as saying. "Israel cannot afford to have millions of civilians under rocket threat."
Liberal writer Peter Beinart, a former editor of the New Republic and founder of the failed Open Zion blog, praised the peace conference and his current employer Haaretz for holding it.
"The conference encapsulates what I most admire about my Haaretz colleagues in Israel: their refusal to submit to fatalism and dehumanization irrespective of the odds," Beinart wrote in a Facebook posting.
"I can’t think of any newspaper more crucial to the moral health of its nation nor any institution that better represents the Zionism in which I believe," wrote Beinart, a key ally of the liberal fringe group J Street.
Haaretz’s circulation has plummeted in recent years as mainstream Israeli readers have turned to other publications. Haaretz has a circulation of just over 70,000, a figure far below that of the more popular Israel Hayom, which has a circulation of around 300,000.
Beinart, for instance, accused Israel on Monday of "putting at stake" the "honor" of the Jewish people.
The paper also has characterized "Israeli millennials" as a bloodthirsty cohort hungry for "vengeance" against the Palestinians.