In early May, pro-Palestinian posters began appearing on the walls of 16 subway stations, promoting a June 10 rally at the U.S. Capitol to mark the 40 years since Israel took control of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
The 20 posters, which cost $10,000 to run for a month, were paid for by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. They depict a young Palestinian boy with his schoolbag walking in front of a towering Israeli tank. The posters read: "The world says no to Israeli occupation."
Soon after, pro-Israel groups paid $17,500 for 35 of their own ads, some of which show Palestinian children in military attire carrying what appear to be plastic toy guns and grenades. "Teaching children to hate will never lead to peace," one ad reads.
Officials at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said the agency has received about 40 comments about the ads, most of which have been complaints.
One person who complained about the pro-Palestinian ads wrote "Don't be pawns to these radical groups!" Several complaints provided by Metro criticized both campaigns as "racist."
While transit systems in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco do not allow political ads, Metro has a "content neutral" policy, allowing any ads that are protected by the constitutional right to freedom of expression.
Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that policy is unlikely to change. "This is Washington," she said. "Everything is political."
StandWithUs, one of the pro-Israel groups that placed the ads, said it decided not to ignore the first ads because of concerns about the message people might take away from the image of the tank and the child.
"We were concerned about the everyday person who would pass those posters with zero information and see the tanks and have a very poisoned image of Israel," executive director Roz Rothstein said. "We didn't want to be boiled down to one little picture."
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said he was worried that the counter-campaign would give the pro-Palestinian rally more visibility.
"We don't believe that pro-Israel advocacy depends on trashing the Palestinians," said Halber, whose organization represents more than 200 Jewish groups and synagogues in the region.
Sut Jhally, an advertising expert and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the subway ads were unlikely to change anyone's opinions.
"One message doesn't work on its own," he said. "Advertising is about the accumulation of messages and the context in which it appears."
Some commuters passing through the one of the downtown Washington stations this week said they would have preferred not to encounter the ads.
Matt Bernhart, 36, who was visiting from Minnesota, said he did not like either campaign. "We're plastered with this stuff every day in the newspapers and on TV. It's likely to just rile people up."
Adi Greif, 23, of Arlington, Va., also criticized the tone of the ads in a place already sensitive to terrorism. "Whether or not you agree with the message, it inspires a lot of fear, whether or not the specific facts are true," she said.