A rarely told story of the 1948 war that founded Israel concerns Nazareth’s survival. It is the only Palestinian city in what is today Israel that was not ethnically cleansed during the year-long fighting. Nazareth was not only an anomaly; it was a mistake. The reason Nazareth survived is because of the actions of one individual: Ben Dunkelman, a Canadian Jew.
Nazareth has the largest concentration of Christians in the Holy Land but also a two-thirds Muslim majority after the city became a place of sanctuary for many refugees in 1948. That has made it especially vulnerable to Israel’s divide-and-rule strategies. Benjamin Netanyahu sought to foment discord here in the late 1990s, during his first term as prime minister, by backing a plan to build a huge mosque overshadowing the city’s main holy site. Now back in power, he is up to the same kind of mischief.
The violence rocking the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and now Gaza is on the verge of spilling into Israel, Palestinian leaders in Israel warned. A wave of unrest has swept Palestinian towns in Israel over recent days. Aggressive policing, vigilante-style attacks by Israeli Jews and a crackdown on the Palestinian leadership in Israel have quickly heightened tensions.
With 47 independent church schools in Israel facing closure as they are starved of funding, many Christians are starting to suspect their government is waging a low-level war against them. Christians in neighbouring states are fleeing the Middle East as they face civil wars and threats of persecution. In Israel the mistreatment of Christians may be more bureaucratic than physical, but its effects are likely in the long run to prove just as tangible.
Israel is seeking to bring dozens of church-run schools under government control, a move that community leaders warn will curb the last vestiges of educational freedom for the country’s large Palestinian minority. The schools, which educate Christians and Muslims and are among the highest-achieving in Israel, are the only hope for most families trying to escape dire conditions in the government-run Arab education system.
Upper Nazareth was built on Nazareth’s lands to “Judaise” the only Palestinian city to survive relatively unscathed from the 1948 war. But in recent years the proportion of Palestinian citizens living in Upper Nazareth has grown – and now stands at 20%. Fears of an Arab takeover stand behind a raft of controversial municipal measures, from banning Christmas trees and blocking the building of a school teaching in Arabic to the latest: refusing to stock books in Arabic at local public libraries.
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.
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