Livingstone risks Jewish anger with Sharon attack

The dispute between Ken Livingstone and Britain's Jewish leaders was reignited last night when the London mayor branded Ariel Sharon a war criminal.

Mr Livingstone launched a provocative critique of Israel with accusations of "ethnic cleansing" and demonising Muslims before calling for the imprisonment of its Prime Minister.

The comments were made two weeks after the London mayor controversially likened a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard.

Mr Livingstone has refused to apologise for his comments, repeatedly emphasising his anti-racist stance and denying that his words were anti-Semitic.

His comments on Israel came to light in a written response to criticism levelled at him by the Board of Deputies of British Jews which was published in today's Guardian.

"Israel's expansion includes ethnic cleansing," he said. "Palestinians who had lived in that land for centuries were driven out by systematic violence and terror aimed at ethnically cleansing what became a large part of the Israeli state."

He added: "Today the Israeli government continues seizures of Palestinian land for settlements, military incursions into surrounding countries and denial of the right of Palestinians expelled by terror to return.

"Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, is a war criminal who should be in prison not in office."

His comments are unlikely to ease already fraught relations between the mayor and the Jewish community in Britain.

Tensions came to light last year when Mr Livingstone invited the Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to speak at a conference in London.

However, at the crux of the current conflict are comments made by the mayor to Mr Finegold, a reporter at the Evening Standard, last month. His refusal to apologise for his remarks led to a media storm that culminated in the diplomatically embarrassing demand by Zvi Heifetz, Israel's ambassador to Britain, for an apology for "abusing" the memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

"By using such flippant language, Livingstone not only seriously abused the memories of all those Jews who survived the concentration camps, but also the British troops who died fighting the Nazis and their families," he said.

Mr Livingstone has stood by his decision that he was not going to apologise for his words. At one stage, he said that his words were "not intended to cause offence" and had no intention of trivialising the Holocaust. But he added: "The form of words I have used are right. I have nothing to apologise for."

Yesterday, there was again no sign of apology in Mr Livingstone's comments. He also claimed in his article that the Israeli government presented a "wholly distorted picture of racism and religious discrimination in Europe in order to convey the impression that Jews suffer most discrimination.

"The reality is that the great bulk of racist attacks in Europe today are on black people, Asians and Muslims - and they are the primary targets of the extreme right."

A spokesman for the Board of Deputies told The Guardian: "Once again the mayor has shown an inability to understand and show consideration for the Jewish community."