Tunis - Hundreds of Tunisians staged a sit-in Monday outside the constituent assembly in Tunis to demand that a new draft constitution maintain a ban on the normalization of ties with Israel.

The demonstrators called for Article 27 of Tunisia's old constitution, which declares “all forms of normalization with Zionism and the Zionist entity is a crime punishable by law” be kept in the new charter.

Israel does not have formal diplomatic relations with Tunisia, which has a small Jewish community centred on the island of Djerba.

Several years of improved relations led the two states to open interest sections in each other's countries in 1996.

But the thaw was short-lived - ousted former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali broke off ties in 2000 to protest Israel's response to the Second Intifada.

In March the leader of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi ruled out normalizing ties with Israel.

“Tunisians' problem is with Zionism, not with Judaism,” Ghannouchi said.

The collective of 11 organizations behind Monday's sit-in suspects that the government's position is softening.

In a sign that the clause on ties with Israel has caused unease among assembly members, the committee on rights and liberties recently handed it to the less influential committee on general principles.

“We want article 27 to be confirmed in the new constitution and for it not to be subject to foreign pressure,” one of the organizers, Salah Masri told dpa.

The debate over the clause comes in the midst of a government drive to improve ties with the West following last month's attack on the US embassy in Tunis over the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims.

Four protesters were killed when hundreds of Islamist radicals besieged the embassy and torched an American school.

The government has since promised to crack down on extremists. - Sapa-dpa