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(photo credit: AP)
Shahar Pe'er advanced to the quarterfinals of the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand on Wednesday, but made international headlines for an entirely different, and far less pleasant reason.
A New Zealand protest group said Wednesday it had written to Pe'er asking her to withdraw from the WTA tournament as part of a comprehensive international boycott of Israel over the ongoing fighting in Gaza.
The group, Peace and Justice Auckland, said it had received no reply from Pe'er and would protest outside the tournament venue on Thursday when the fifth-seeded player was scheduled to play her quarterfinal match against top seed and world number four Elena Dementieva.
Pe'er, who was provided with extra security during her second round victory over Barbora Zahlavova of the Czech Republic 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, rejected the calls, saying she could do nothing about the politics of the Middle East.
"I have nothing to do with this," she said.
"I'm Shahar Pe'er. I came here to play tennis. I know I'm from Israel and I'm proud of my country, and playing tennis is what I'm going to do tomorrow."
Pe'er, 21, said she had tried to ignore the events in Gaza but her own brother, Shlomi, a military reservist, had been called up.
"Two days ago, I was crying a bit, actually more than a bit, so it was a hard time for me," she said.
"I hope as soon as possible it will end and we will all be happy, because no one wants to be in a war."
Pe'er said she had never previously been the focus of protests and had even been the first Israeli to play in the Muslim country of Doha, Qatar, where she was warmly received.
She added, however, that she believed the protesters had the right to express their view.
"It's their choice and they are choosing what they want to do," she said.
Peace and Justice Auckland said its letter to Pe'er highlighted the attacks and invasion of Gaza by the Israeli army and the heavy death toll of Palestinians.
"The sports boycott of Israel is a key part of any boycott campaign because it is much more visible than a trade or investment boycott and can have an important psychological impact," protest leader John Minto said in a statement.
"We saw this with the successful sports boycotts against apartheid South Africa which had a big impact in South Africa and around the world."
In the doubles tournament, Pe'er and Caroline Wozniacki were knocked out in the quarterfinals, losing 6-7 (4), 6-1, 4-10 to Julie Ditty and Carly Gullickson.
Thursday's anti-Israeli protest will not be the first to be held in New Zealand.
A memorial monument to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Wellington was defaced with red paint during a demonstration on Monday against the IDF operation in Gaza.
About 100 protesters reportedly converged at the monument in Lambton Quay, where Wellington Palestinian Group spokesman Don Carson criticized the lack of New Zealand government response, calling it weak and one-sided, and urged it to enter talks with Hamas.
Members of the crowd chanted "They kill, they lie but Palestine will never die", "Allah Akbar" and "Free, free Palestine".
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said earlier that the government had called on both sides of the conflict to accept an immediate cease-fire.