Guardian – 24 December 2001
The town in Galilee in which Christ grew up has not escaped the commercialisation of Christmas. Shining from shop awnings along Nazareth’s main street are hundreds of inflatable Father Christmases swaying in the cool breeze of an Israeli winter. Competing for attention as dusk fell on Paul VI Street have been the explosions of firecrackers thrown by children celebrating the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, which this year coincided with the build-up to Christmas. Their parents marked it by snaking long strings of green lights – the colour of Islam – along their balconies.
But in this city, one third Christian and two thirds Muslim, there has been little sign of the tension or rivalry that scarred relations between the two Arab communities. Not even over the proposed Shihab a-Din mosque, which its architects hope will one day dwarf the neighbouring site of pilgrimage, the Basilica of the Annunciation, the Catholic church that marks where the Archangel Gabriel supposedly announced to Mary her miraculous conception.
For two years the car park next to the Basilica has been commandeered by the Islamic Movement, which has staked out the boundaries with flags bearing Koranic verses, and has erected a tent where the faithful can pray on well-worn mats. In the middle is a pulpit of palm leaves. The area, which includes a small tomb to Shihab a-Din, nephew of Crusaders’ nemesis Salah a-Din, is alleged to be a holy site.
In recent weeks, the planned mosque has stopped being a metaphorical wound and become a physical one, 10 metres deep. Partially hidden by a fence, volunteers have dug a large hole and are laying foundations. They have yet to receive the necessary permits from the Israeli government but they have been emboldened by the planning authority’s agreement to a change of land use. Surprisingly, given the many rows over the site – they came to blows -there has been hardly a squeak about the illegal work, either in the streets of Nazareth or in the Israeli media. Almost alone, church leaders in Jerusalem protested against the planning decision.
The silence has nothing to do with the season of goodwill. Most Nazarenes have more pressing matters on their mind than an extravagant battle of symbols. Israel, buffeted economically by the intifada, is racing into a slump that pinches everyone, throttling Nazareth.
The city, once filled with pilgrims from around the globe, has barely seen a visitor since the start of the intifada 15 months ago. Shop owners still open each morning in an act of faith, or expectation of a miracle, that there will be a demand for Virgin Mary statuettes. The restaurants and hotels, many built for the visit of the Pope in 2000, are struggling. The luxurious Renaissance goes for weeks without a paying guest. Its main business is hosting bargain local wedding receptions. The only recent customer at the Marriott was a convention of Yogic Flying teachers needing a cheap venue.
Nazareth, capital of Israel’s 1m Arabs, was also traditionally a haven for secular Jews wanting to shop or eat falafel on the Sabbath. During the intifada, they have boycotted Arab areas inside Israel, out of fear – or as a punishment. Many believe that the Arab population is a fifth column inside the Jewish state, complicit in Palestinian attacks. So Nazareth is a no-go area for Israeli Jews, like Gaza and the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin. In this corner of Israel, a little piece of Palestine has already been born.