Al-Ahram Weekly – 17 January 2002
At the site where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is believed to have received the Archangel Gabriel’s revelation of her miraculous conception, stands the biggest church in the Middle East. Until the Intifada began 16 months ago, the Basilica of the Annunciation attracted queues of thousands of pilgrims from around the globe each day.
But for the past three months, the peace inside the church has been shattered by pneumatic drills and bulldozers digging in the neighbouring car park, as well as the five-times-a-day call to prayer by the local sheikh using a loudspeaker mounted on a makeshift pulpit of palm leaves.
Last week, under stiff pressure from President George W Bush and Pope John Paul II, the Israeli government finally called a halt to building work by Islamic hardliners on a huge mosque in the centre of Nazareth. Its architects had hoped that the towering minaret would one day dwarf the imposing spire of the Basilica.
The Israeli government was forced to act when members of the Islamic Movement started laying the foundations of the building and were about to begin on the walls before they had been given planning permission.
Church leaders in Jerusalem had also mounted a campaign to have the work stopped.
The local Muslim waqf (religious trust) received outline approval for the mosque from the previous governments of Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak after the Islamic Movement commandeered the car park in 1998 and set up a holy tent. Both leaders hoped to win Muslim votes.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reversed their decision last Wednesday, saying his officials would propose a new site for the mosque within two weeks. Sharon was reportedly concerned by souring relations between Israel and the international Christian community at a time when he is trying to win Western support for his policy of isolating Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Over Christmas Sharon antagonised church leaders with his blockade of Bethlehem and refusal to let Arafat attend the town’s annual celebrations.
Although Sharon has no Arab constituency to appease, taking a decision over the mosque affair was one he hesitated to take. It risks fuelling the growing extremism of the Islamic Movement, which has strong ties to the Palestinian group Hamas and Hizbullah in Lebanon and may yet be provoked into active participation in the current Intifada.
The reaction by the Islamic Movement was a mixture of outrage and defiance. The city’s deputy mayor, Salman Abu Ahmed, called the decision “a declaration of war” on the Muslim minority. He added ominously: “The government and church leaders will bear the consequences for what could happen. We know how to struggle.”
The battle for symbolic control of Nazareth, the de facto capital of Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens, has become hugely significant to many Muslims, who suffer the country’s worst social and economic discrimination. In the past few decades Muslim numbers in the northern Israeli city have swollen so that today they comprise two-thirds of its 70,000 inhabitants.
The Islamic Movement, too, has become increasingly powerful, winning a majority of council seats in the 1999 elections largely on the back of the mosque issue.
In recent years the Movement has split into two factions: a moderate southern wing which participates in elections to the Israeli parliament and a radical northern wing that rejects all involvement in national politics. Nazareth is controlled by the northern branch.
While the southern wing has denounced Palestinian suicide bombs as “un-Islamic,” the northern faction, led by Sheikh Riad Salah, has left its position ambiguous.
While not explicitly calling for Israel’s destruction, the group denies the legitimacy of the Jewish state and campaigns for the creation of an Islamic nation across the region.
Israel has, however, allowed Salah and his party exclusive control over excavation work on waqf land at the Haram Al-Sharif, or Temple Mount as it is known to Jews, in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Israel’s Shin Bet security service has been stepping up its monitoring of the Islamic Movement since the start of the Intifada and accuses the group of channelling money to Hamas, often on the pretext of assisting it with welfare and religious projects.
At least one Islamic Movement member is known to have turned suicide bomber. Mohammed Shaker Habeishi, from the village of Abu Snan in the Galilee, blew himself up at a train station in the coastal town of Nahariya in September killing three Israelis.
Shin Bet accuses other members of helping to smuggle Hamas bombers into Israel or housing them in the Galilee area, where there has been a sudden spate of bombing attacks in the last few months.
Asad Ghanem, a lecturer at Haifa University and an expert on the Arab minority, said most Palestinians in Israel had no truck with terror attacks. But he added: “There has been a shift in attitudes caused by the aggressive policies of the Sharon government in the territories and the inclusion of racist right-wing groups in the cabinet.”
“Relations between the government and members of the Islamic Movement are in a particularly explosive state,” he said.
The alienation of all Israel’s Arabs has grown since the early days of the Intifada, in October 2000, when they demonstrated in support of their ethnic kin in the Palestinian territories. Police forces shot dead 13 protesters in the Galilee and injured hundreds more.
Many Jewish Israeli politicians now describe the country’s Palestinian citizens as a fifth column and some, including members of Sharon’s Likud party, have been calling for them to be forcibly transferred to the occupied territories.
The Islamic Movement claims that the car park next to the Basilica is holy because it contains a small shrine to Shihabeddin, nephew of Salaheddin, who defeated the invading army of Crusaders at the end of the 12th century.
However, the dispute was triggered only in 1998 when the city proposed turning the empty site into a plaza to welcome pilgrims to the Basilica. At Easter 1999, confrontations between Muslims and Christians turned into fist fights on the streets of Nazareth.