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German peace activists back Nobel laureate Grass in Israel row

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Peace activists in Germany Monday voiced support for author Gunter Grass who has been barred from entering Israel over a poem accusing the Jewish state of plotting Iran’s annihilation and endangering world peace.

“It is unacceptable,” said Willi van Ooyen, a spokesman for a group that organizes the traditional peace marches held each year on Easter weekend in Germany since 1960.

“Threats and preparations for war poison the political climate,” said Ooyen, referring to concerns that Israel might launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities to stop a suspected weapons program.

The 84-year-old Grass sparked outrage at home and abroad last week with the publication of a poem titled “What must be said” in which he said he feared a nuclear-armed Israel “could wipe out the Iranian people” with a “first strike”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the poem as “shameful”.

Grass, a Nobel literature prize winner, has said he found the personal accusations against him “hurtful”, but he had no plans to back down.

The author said in a weekend interview that, in retrospect, he would have phrased his poem differently to “make it clearer that I am primarily talking about the (Netanyahu) government.”

“I have often supported Israel, I have often been in the country and want the country to exist and at last find peace with its neighbors,” he told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

The debate ignited by the poem has not ceased in Germany where Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Sunday penned a commentary that appeared to criticize Grass, without making explicit reference to him.

“Germany has a historic responsibility for the citizens of Israel,” he wrote in the Bild Am Sonntag. “To put Iran and Israel on an equal moral footing is not clever but absurd.”

It is not the first time Grass has sparked outrage. The author of the renowned anti-war novel “The Tin Drum” touched off a firestorm of controversy in 2006 when he revealed, six decades after World War II, that he had been a member of the notorious Waffen SS.

Israel, the sole if undeclared nuclear power in the Middle East, has said it is keeping all options open for responding to Iran’s nuclear program, which it says is aimed at securing atomic weapons.

Tehran says it is developing nuclear technology for purely peaceful purposes, but its calls for Israel's destruction, support for Islamist guerrillas on its borders and questioning of the Nazi genocide have stirred international war jitters.