Daily Star – 7 March 2006
Nazareth was sucked into the eye of a storm last weekend, threatening, briefly, to unleash a conflagration. Three visitors to the Basilica of the Annunciation – the huge church built over the grotto where the angel Gabriel supposedly told Mary she was bearing the son of God – let off a series of explosions that, according to witnesses, filled the building with smoke and deafening noise for several minutes.
As rumors spread of a Jewish terror attack, Nazarenes hurried to the church. Only a few months ago Natan Eden Zada, a soldier opposed to the disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, killed four Arab citizens – two Christians and two Muslims – by opening fire on a bus in a neighboring town. Zada was following in the footsteps of another Israeli soldier, Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994.
By the time I reached the basilica, half an hour after the explosions, the walled-off plaza around the church complex was seething with Muslims and Christians, young and old, priests and community leaders. Many others stood outside the compound in shock, watching the scene from a distance. Among the crowd were a few hotheads still hoping to settle a score with Israeli police after they killed 13 unarmed demonstrators, including three Nazarenes, at the start of the intifada. The youngsters hissed as each unit of riot police pushed its way into the church compound.
Locked inside an annex of the church were the three intruders protected by police. (In fact, as later emerged, this had not been the terror attack of everyone’s worst imaginings but the actions of an angry Jew, Haim Habibi, his wife and their 20-year-old daughter. To win publicity for a custody battle over one of his children, Habibi had let off fireworks inside the church, terrifying worshippers during a service marking Lent. He also planned to detonate several gas canisters hidden in a pram.)
Over the next three hours the crowd and the swelling ranks of riot police maintained a tense standoff. Assuming the normal police reaction to disturbances in Israel’s Arab communities, we braced ourselves for an attack by armed police. It never came, however. Instead, police used small quantities of tear gas and a much larger number of stun grenades. When, later, a police car close to the church was set afire, distracting everyone’s attention, the intruders were smuggled out dressed as police officers.
But it was the aftermath of this attack – rather than the confusing motives of the perpetrators and the relatively restrained handling by the police – that proved to be more typically revealing about Israel’s relationship with its one million Arab citizens and its self-image as the guardian of the Holy Land’s sacred spaces.
If the police had been warned to respect the holy ground of the Basilica, no such restrictions were placed on their behaviour once the crowds dispersed. As I left the church and headed to the nearby main street, Paulus VI, I realized there was no obvious way to leave the area. The flashing lights of police vehicles blocking roads in every direction meant we were hemmed into the center. Rather than leaving after their successful extraction of the three intruders, the riot police stayed behind for what looked suspiciously like an attempt to teach the Nazarenes a lesson.
As families stood discussing the events, or tried to snatch a sandwich, clouds of tear gas enveloped us and the police opened fire with yet more stun grenades. At least a dozen local inhabitants were injured. The Israeli media later praised what they called the police’s “model conduct.”
Earlier, when I spoke with community leaders outside the basilica, several confidently predicted the subsequent train of events. The intruders would be dismissed by the media as “crazies,” their attack on one of the holiest places in the Middle East would be downplayed as insignificant, the Arab public would be portrayed yet again as a wild mob, the Vatican would keep its head down, Israeli politicians would exploit the incident to the harm of the Arab minority, and the intruders would receive negligible sentences.
And so – in the main – it has already come to pass, thereby fuelling the disillusion of Israel’s Arab citizens and their sense that the system is designed to marginalize them and their concerns.
Habibi has been described both as mentally unstable and in economic distress, although no evidence for either claim has yet emerged. These excuses will presumably be extenuating circumstances when his case comes to court, threatening a repeat of the pattern of official indulgence of Jewish citizens who abuse their Arab neighbors. These excuses, as Arab politicians warn, simply set the seal on the next, more dangerous incident. They confirm to Israeli Jews that attacks on Arab targets are not viewed seriously.
As if to underline this point, the Hebrew media minimized the significance of the attack while foreign correspondents – presumably taking their cue from Israeli colleagues – barely noticed it. Over the weekend, the scant coverage referred to “firecrackers” being set off, as though this were a childish prank, and newspapers had fun with headlines like “It’s enough to make you explode.” How different this was from the media’s uniformly horrified response last summer to the ransacking by Palestinians of the abandoned – and deconsecrated – synagogues of Gaza following the disengagement.
The final insult has been hearing Israel’s acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shamelessly castigating Arab leaders who raised these issues for “politicizing” the event. He also dismissed a protest march the day after the attack in which thousands of Christian and Muslims joined together in Nazareth. Olmert remarked of the display of unity: “It is almost absurd when the Islamic leadership, which is known for being intolerant toward Christianity, leads a demonstration caused by a spaced-out couple and uses it as political leverage during the election period.”
Olmert’s transparent attempts to politicize the incident himself by sowing the seeds of discord between Israel’s Christian and Muslim citizens were soundly rebuffed. Knesset member Mohammad Barakeh called Olmert “sick with racism and cruel condescension.”
As Israel’s Arab citizens and the Palestinians well know, Olmert and his predecessors have not been averse to inflaming religious tension and hatred when it suits their purposes. In Nazareth, for example, government officials cultivated a group of observant Muslims in the late 1990s, encouraging them to build a mosque provocatively close to the Basilica of the Annunciation, only switching sides when President George W. Bush intervened.
There are many other cases. Following the outbrak of the intifada, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been barred from praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem while Jews have free access to the Western Wall. Israel has just begun building a Museum of Tolerance over an ancient Islamic cemetery in Jerusalem. And the government is strictly enforcing a policy of keeping Muslim and Christian holy places out of bounds in the hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel following the 1948 war, including recently by wrapping mosques in razor wire.
Like this weekend’s attack on the basilica, none of these developments seems to be considered newsworthy. As a result, Middle East observers continue to misunderstand how Israel’s management of its conflict with the Palestinians only contributes to the growth of damaging sectarian divisions.