The rise in sectarian sentiment in Nazareth can be understood only in the context of a wider political climate being fomented by the Israeli government. In recent months, the right have unveiled plans to create for the first time separate Christian and Muslim national identities, and, even more controversially, Benjamin Netanyahu has personally backed a campaign to encourage Christians, but not Muslims, to serve in the Israeli army.
Mounting efforts by Israel to divide its large Palestinian minority along sectarian lines have heightened fears that the Biblical city of Nazareth may be about to return to the scenes of violent clashes witnessed 15 years ago. Netanyahu is playing a very dangerous game, seeking to inflame tensions so that he can pit Christians against Muslims and weaken us as a community,” said Hanna Swaid, a Christian Knesset member.
In some parts of Israel, voters in Tuesday’s elections will be casting a ballot not on how well their municipality is run but on how to stop “Arabs” moving in next door, how to prevent mosques being built in their community, or how to “save” Jewish women from the clutches of Arab men. According to analysts and residents, Israel’s local elections have brought a tide of ugly racism to the fore, especially in a handful of communities known as “mixed cities”, where Jewish and Palestinian citizens live in close proximity.
The Holy Land may be the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the three Abrahamic faiths that share much in common – but Israel has preferred to draw on a tradition that imagines the region in terms of a clash of civilisations. This is the context for understanding the announcement this month of a “forum” between the government and Israel’s Christian Palestinians designed to push them into serving in the Israeli military.
Leaders of Israel’s Palestinian minority have accused the Israeli authorities of intensifying efforts to push Christian and Muslim communities into conflict, as part of a long-running divide-and-rule strategy towards the country’s Palestinian citizens. The allegations have been prompted by a series of initiatives to pressure Christian school-leavers into the army, breaking the community’s blanket rejection of the Israeli army draft for the past 65 years.
Israel’s large Palestinian minority is often spoken of in terms of the threat it poses to the Jewish majority. Palestinian citizens’ reproductive rate constitutes a “demographic timebomb”, while their main political programme – Israel’s reform into “a state of all its citizens” – is proof for most Israeli Jews that their compatriots are really a “fifth column”. But who would imagine that Israeli Jews could be so intimidated by the innocuous Christmas tree?
Nazareth found itself transformed twice-over by the 1948 war. A town of 13,000 more than doubled in size over the course of a few months as 15,000 refugees from nearby villages poured in seeking sanctuary from the Israeli army. And, with other cities vanquished inside the new state of Israel, Nazareth unexpectedly found itself the only urban Palestinian space to have survived. Swollen with refugees and in a position to become the political and cultural capital of the Palestinians inside Israel, the city attracted the sustained attention of Israel’s military and political leadership.
The discovery of a rare aerial photo of Jerusalem in the 1930s, taken by a Zeppelin, has provided the long-sought after proof that when Israel occupied the Old City in 1967 it secretly destroyed an important mosque that dated from the time of Saladin close to the al-Aqsa mosque. The destruction of the Sheikh Eid mosque – in an area widely considered to be the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – revives questions about Israel’s continuing abuse of Islamic holy places under its control.
Jewish far-right groups responsible for a series of arson attacks on West Bank mosques over the past year broke dangerous ground last week when they turned their attention for the first time to holy places inside Israel. A mosque was torched, followed days later by an attack on Muslim and Christian graves. In each case the settlers left their calling card – the words “Price tag”, indicating an act of revenge – scrawled on their handiwork.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, was reportedly “outraged” on Monday by images of the gutted mosque in the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangariya, close to the Galilee’s Jewish towns of Rosh Pina and Safed. However, critics pointed out that he and other government ministers had failed to express equal concern over a spate of similar attacks on mosques that have occurred in the West Bank over the past two years.
Israeli authorities are pressing ahead with plans to build a courthouse complex on a large historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem that is already at the center of protest over plans to locate a “Museum of Tolerance” there. The proposed courthouse is expected to provoke stiff opposition, especially from Islamic groups, after it was revealed that an excavation last year for the museum, close by, unearthed as many as 1,500 Muslim graves.
Job interviews for the position of imam at mosques in Israel are conducted not by senior clerics but by the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police, a labour tribunal has revealed. Sheikh Ahmed Abu Ajwa, 36, is fighting the Shin Bet’s refusal to approve his appointment as an imam in a case that has lifted the lid on Israel’s secret surveillance of the country’s Islamic leaders. At a hearing last month, a senior government official admitted that 60 undercover inspectors were employed effectively as spies to collect information on Muslim clerics.
The municipality of Beersheva, the capital of southern Israel, is racing to put the finishing touches to repairs of the city’s long-neglected and unused Great Mosque, built more than 100 years ago by the Ottoman rulers of what was then Palestine. But, over the protests of Beersheva’s thousands-strong community of Muslims, the Jewish-run municipality is not planning to restore the city’s only mosque to its former glory as a place of worship. It wants to convert it into a museum.
Pope Benedict XVI urged the Christian and Muslim communities of Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel, to “reject the destructive power of hatred and prejudice” as he addressed 40,000 followers yesterday at his final public Mass in the Holy Land. His message of peace and reconciliation for Nazareth, renowned as the town where Jesus grew up, was delivered amid a heavy Israeli security operation that angered many residents.
Pope Benedict XVI upset the schedule on his first day in Israel by leaving an interfaith meeting in Jerusalem early on Monday night after a leading Muslim cleric called on him to condemn the “slaughter” of women and children in the recent assault on Gaza. The pontiff walked out, a spokesman noted, because Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi’s speech was a “direct negation” of dialogue and damaged the Pope’s efforts at “promoting peace”.
Anti-Christian banners and billboards have sprung up along the main route to Nazareth’s Roman Catholic church days before Pope Benedict XVI is due to arrive in Israel’s largest Arab city to conduct an open-air mass. The signs, including one denouncing those who “harm God or his messenger”, have been posted by a radical Islamic group in the city as part of a campaign to stop the Pope’s visit.
As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to leave Jordan and head for Israel tomorrow on the next step of his tour of the Holy Land, the city of Nazareth is in a race to complete an amphitheatre to host tens of thousands of pilgrims expected to celebrate his main public Mass in Israel on Thursday. Officials in Nazareth, renowned as the hometown of Jesus, are revelling both in the Vatican’s choice of their city for the Mass and in the Israeli government’s agreement to invest $5 million – nearly half its total budget for the visit – to construct the venue.
Israel seems to have little time for the irony that a modern Jewish shrine to “coexistence and tolerance” is being built on the graves of the city’s Muslim forefathers. The Israeli Supreme Court’s approval last week of the building of a Jewish Museum of Tolerance over an ancient Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem is the latest in a series of legal and physical assaults on Islamic holy places since Israel’s founding in 1948.
Among the images of Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebrations to be found on the internet is a photograph of CNN reporter Ben Wedeman being kicked firmly on the behind as he tries to run from the boot of an armed policeman. All around him, as other photographs reveal, journalists are fleeing for safety, families are being charged by mounted police, and parents can be seen grabbing toddlers as clouds of tear gas engulf them. The stragglers are shown with bloodied faces after a beating with police batons.