Guardian – 13 November 2000
Being a postman in Nazareth is trickier than in most towns. The danger of attack by dog is probably no greater than elsewhere in Israel, but finding an address requires an unusually intimate knowledge of the tangle of back streets: most have no name, and the houses no numbers. Space is at such a premium that as families grow so do their homes – through a series of extensions and additions, most of them illegal. Any numbering system would soon break down. As one resident observed: “If the council can’t find room to build pavements, how are we expected to find a plot for a new home?”
Nazareth, a town of about 60,000 inhabitants – two-thirds Muslim, one-third Christian – is the de facto capital of the Arab citizens of Israel. For that fact alone, it has attracted the less than disinterested attention of Israeli governments since the state’s creation in 1948. They have contained the town’s development and expansion by confiscating its outlying lands as part of a policy of “Judaising the Galilee”, or settling Jews in Israel’s Arab heartland. Although Nazareth’s population has grown, its size has hardly changed. The result is a shameful paradox: the town has some of the country’s highest real estate prices, even though it is poorer than most Jewish communities.
The shortage of space has led to growing antagonism between Muslims and Christians, particularly over the perception that the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Maronite churches have a stranglehold on the town’s best land. Until late September, headlines about violence in Nazareth usually referred to clashes between Muslims and Christians.
The most visible issue has been a dispute over Muslim demands to build a large mosque next to one of the Holy Land’s most popular sites of Christian pilgrimage, the Basilica of the Annunciation. A government committee appointed to adjudicate approved the mosque but insisted on a reduction in its proposed size. In the meantime, Muslims have set up a “holy tent” on the site and regularly try to drown out Basilica services with the call to prayer.
Many observers suspect that Israel has secretly been encouraging this sectarian conflict. “Divide and rule,” mumble Arab leaders in the town, including its communist mayor, Ramiz Jeraisi.
All that changed at the end of September, with the massacre of Palestinians at the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. As elsewhere in Israel, Arabs in Nazareth spilled on to the streets to vent their anger, both at the deaths and at five decades of discrimination. Muslims and Christians were reminded that, whatever their differences, they are all second-class citizens in their own country.
The demonstration of unity brought a swift response from their neighbours – Jews from the development town of Upper Nazareth. Established in 1957 to accommodate east European immigrants, it was built on land confiscated from Nazareth. Since then, Nazarenes have watched as the Jewish town has grown and prospered, receiving bigger local council grants, priority for industrial development and special tax breaks.
Despite their advantages, some of the inhabitants of Upper Nazareth resent living so close to Arabs. Possibly inspired by the Israeli media, which accused rioting Israeli Arabs of being “traitors”, gangs of young Jews descended on Nazareth, attacking homes to chants of “Death to the Arabs”. When Arab youths retaliated, the police opened fire, killing two.
The scar left by these events will not easily heal. After years of “coexistence” between Nazareth and Upper Nazareth, the battle lines are being redrawn, this time between Jews and Arabs. Mohammed Zidan, a human rights lawyer in Nazareth, fears the rule of law has been undermined. “The population in Galilee is split 50-50 between Jews and Arabs, and now there is only distrust. Authority has broken down like it did during the war that founded Israel. The danger is we could slide towards civil war.”