Black, pungent smoke from burning tyres mixed with white, even more acrid plumes of tear gas to create an ugly grey smog eclipsing Nazareth’s most famous landmark, the imposing spire of the Basilica of the Annunciation. Clashes over the weekend between youths and police in Israel’s largest Palestinian city have not been seen on this scale since the outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000.
The leaders of Israel’s large Palestinian minority are stepping up opposition to Israeli government plans to recruit Christians into the military with a specially convened congress. The move follows an announcement in April from the Israeli Defence Forces that all Christians would receive call-up papers on graduating from high school. An initial batch of 800 papers is due to be issued in the coming weeks.
The Israeli government has been slowly raising the stakes to pressure Palestinian Christians to serve in the military. In April, Israel announced it would issue enlistment notices to Christians on graduating from school. The Greek Orthodox patriarch responded by sacking a Nazareth priest who has styled himself the spiritual leader of a small but vociferous group of Christians who back the government campaign.
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.
Israel has unveiled an ambitious plan to build in Nazareth the first Israeli branch of an American university. But despite the economic benefits, Nazareth officials are concerned. Not least they fear the new campus will be used to drive a wedge further between Palestinian Christians and Muslims; stymie efforts by Palestinians in Israel to win educational autonomy; and strike a powerful blow against mounting pressure from the international movement for an academic and cultural boycott.
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.
Since 2005, Israel’s government has quietly classified Upper Nazareth as an ethnically mixed city. The migration of Palestinians into neighbouring Upper Nazareth has been underway for more than a decade, creating a unique problem for the Judaisation programme. Rather than swallowing Nazareth as was supposed to happen, Upper Nazareth is being slowly swallowed by its Palestinian neighbour.
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.
Cafes have always been integral components of Arab culture, making room for cultural and political syntheses. With the gradual increase in the complexities of contemporary issues facing the Arab societies, cafes have developed into safe havens for different local communities to think openly, be different and exist in a free environment in the face of repressive and inhospitable surroundings. They have become active ingredients in the change the Arab world is witnessing.
The tiny village of Al-Aqaba in the West Bank is a model of access for the disabled. Its mayor, Hajj Sami Sadeq, has been using a wheelchair since the age of 14, when a bullet from an Israeli soldier lodged in his spine. His case typifies the especially ambiguous aura around disability among Palestinians. The view of disability shifted dramatically during the two intifadas, when tens of thousands of men, women and children were left with permanent injuries from Israeli military operations.
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.
Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, last week declared Safed “the most racist city in the country”. The unflattering, and hotly contested, epithet follows an edict from Safed’s senior rabbis ordering residents not to sell or rent homes to “non-Jews” – a reference to the country’s Palestinian Arab citizens, who comprise a fifth of Israel’s population.
Despite the loss of their village, the 4,500 Palestinian refugees from Saffuriya and their descendants have clung to one hope: that the Jewish newcomers could not buy their land, only lease it temporarily from the state. According to international law, Israel holds the property of more than four million Palestinian refugees in custodianship, until a final peace deal determines whether they will be allowed back or compensated for their loss. But last week, Benjamin Netanyahu, forced through a revolutionary land reform.
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.
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.
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.
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