SHMURAT HASHARON, Israel (AP) -- Israel is sending a Jewish-Arab duo to represent it with a song of peace at Europe's best-known song competition at a particularly fraught moment for relations between the country's Jews and Arabs.

Not surprisingly, the choice has sparked criticism and debate with a gravity that couldn't be further from the Eurovision competition itself, a festival of flamboyant pop and unapologetic kitsch which draws some 100 million TV viewers every year.

Achinoam Nini, a regular on the world music scene known internationally as Noa, and Mira Awad, a local actress and singer, were selected by Israel's national broadcasting authority. Their selection came a day after Israel launched its Gaza offensive in December to halt rocket fire by Hamas militants.

Awad, who will be the first Arab ever to represent Israel at the competition, was roundly criticized for agreeing to go and became the subject of a petition organized by Israeli Arab artists who said sending her and Nini, a veteran peace activist, was a deliberate attempt to portray Israel as something it is not.

In an interview between rehearsals at Nini's home, the two singers said they would nonetheless appear at the contest, slated to be held in Moscow in May. They are working on four songs, each in English, Arabic and Hebrew. One will be chosen in a national broadcast next month as Israel's official entry.

When her manager called to tell her she had been selected, Awad said, she was glued to coverage of the Gaza fighting. "I said, 'OK, OK,' and I closed the phone just to keep watching the TV," she said.

At the time, the Gaza death toll was climbing steeply. It eventually reached 1,300, according to Gaza health officials, at least half of them civilians. Israeli Arabs held angry protests condemning the offensive, which ended Jan. 18.

"The situation is very depressing and very complex now, and we understand that it might seem to some people a bit cynical ... sending a Jewish singer alongside a Palestinian singer," Awad said.

She said she was going to make the point that Jews and Arabs had no option but to find some way to live together.

"It's very important for me not to go back to the corner and just disappear," she said.

Awad's career suggests a sunnier take on Arab life in Israel. Raised in an Arab town in Galilee but now a resident of overwhelmingly Jewish Tel Aviv, she has achieved mainstream popularity, becoming a sought-after television and stage actress. Last year, after she starred in the country's first Arabic sitcom aimed at Jewish viewers, a breathless profile in a Hebrew paper crowned her "the new Arab woman."

Around a fifth of Israel's 7 million citizens are Arabs. They have equal rights under the law but face discrimination in government budgets and employment, and have poverty rates higher than those of the country's Jews.

Relations have been further strained by the Gaza offensive. Some Arab lawmakers have openly identified with Israel's enemies, and last week, a Jewish party with an overtly anti-Arab platform saw its support surge in a national election and became the third-largest grouping in parliament.

"The Israeli government is sending the two of you to Moscow as part of its propaganda machine, which is trying to create the appearance of Jewish-Arab 'coexistence' under which it carries out the daily massacre of Palestinian civilians," read the petition targeting Nini and Awad.

One of the signatories was Mohammad Bakri, a well-known Israeli Arab actor and director who has been critical of the Israeli government.

"I don't want Mira to be used," he said. "It's not a big honor to represent Israel right now in the Eurovision. It's a shame, in my point of view."

The Israeli officials responsible for the choice say both were selected on their merits as artists.

Nini was picked because she is the best-known Israeli singer in Europe, said Yoav Ginai, the Israel Broadcasting Authority official in charge of the committee, and Nini suggested that Awad sing with her. The committee thought that was a "great idea," he said.

Israel won the Eurovision contest twice in the 1970s, and then again in 1998 with a song called "Diva," performed by the country's best-known transsexual.

Nini, an Israeli of Yemenite extraction who grew up in New York, sees the competition as a "stage where we can stand and have millions of people watch and listen."

"Some people will see an Arab girl who looks Jewish and a Jewish girl who looks Arab, which is what we are, she said. "Maybe it will open some people's minds."