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Communal pitfalls

Al-Ahram Weekly – 6 March 2003

The small brown-domed Roman Catholic church in the village of Rama, located in the foothills of the central Galilee in northern Israel, is hidden among steep narrow winding streets. That may explain why an anti-tank missile fired three weeks ago missed the church, presumed to be its target, and hit instead a neighbouring building housing a group of Brazilian nuns.
 
The thick stone walls halted the missile’s progress, leaving only damaged stone and shattered windows. Three nuns who were inside needed treatment for shock.
 
“There was a huge explosion. Had the wall been made of concrete, the missile would have penetrated the building and all three of them might have been killed,” said a trainee priest, Ibrahim Zbeit. “It’s like a little Lebanon here at the moment.”
 
The missile attack is only the latest — and most shocking — phase in a long-simmering sectarian feud that is tearing apart Rama. The village of 8,000 inhabitants is half Christian, 35 per cent Druze and 15 per cent Muslim. The violence appears to be largely the work of a group of Druze youths who have been trying to intimidate the village’s Christian majority.
 
According to residents, for the past months masked teenagers have been descending on Christian neighbourhoods late at night with metal bars, small explosives and guns, terrorising local people. Cars have been bombed or vandalised and houses shot at.
 
“We know the culprits are Druze,” said Labibe Gandoor, 62, chairman of the village’s Christian Orthodox Committee. “When they attack lines of parked cars, they leave alone any that are owned by Druze.”
 
The cause of the recent outbreak of violence can be traced back to a fight between a Druze and Christian youth five months ago which led to the fatal stabbing of the Druze. Christians who attended the funeral were attacked on their way home by the masked gang.
 
Village leaders, however, hasten to add that only a small minority are causing the problems. Relations between the great majority in each community, they say, are civil, although there are clearly long-standing resentments that date back to the creation of the state of Israel.
 
In 1948 when Israeli militias invaded the village they separated the Druze and Christians, forcing only the Christians to leave for the northern border. When Christian families managed to return months later they found their homes ransacked. Many secretly blame the Druze for participating in the attacks.
 
There are fresh grudges too. The Druze accuse the Christians of exploiting their advantages: they own most of the village businesses and they dominate the local council. Their children are exempt from serving in the Israeli army, allowing many to go on to university and good jobs after school.
 
Christians, on the other hand, blame the Druze for not pushing their children hard, with school drop-out rates as high as 70 per cent. Instead Druze teenagers fall back on their three years of compulsory military service and end up unemployed or in dead-end jobs afterwards. There is also an unspoken fear that the Druze, with their far bigger families, are threatening the Christians’ demographic superiority.
 
But it was only after Israel’s invasion of south Lebanon two decades ago that these tensions surfaced into violence. Local Druze soldiers, like their Jewish comrades in the army, became involved in the drugs trade, smuggling heroin, cocaine and cannabis to feed the large market inside Israel.
 
“After the invasion, things really changed here,” said a Druze villager who wished to remain anonymous. “The authorities tend to leave Arab areas unpoliced which means our villages are the perfect setting for criminal activity.
 
“In Rama, gangs formed around the drugs trade. Some Christians competed too. What emerged here were mafias that the traditional village leaders were unable to control.”
 
Unlike their Christian rivals, however, the Druze youths are armed for the three years of their military service. Their connections to the army also mean that they can buy weapons on the blackmarket, including explosives and, now it would seem, a rocket launcher.
 
With an improvised arsenal behind them, Druze criminal gangs have been rampaging through the village apparently either in an attempt to show Christian rival gangs who is boss or to take revenge for what they see as sectarian discrimination.
 
“There is really no opportunity for the two communities to meet and understand each other,” said Safa’ Ghnadre-Nasser, a 25-year- old student and Christian.
 
“Each lives in their separate district, and the council is so starved of funds that it cannot afford to build any kind of community centre.
 
“The high school is the one place where Druze and Christians get together but even there they stay in separate groups.” Her brother Firas Ghnadre adds that last month a playground fight between two pupils quickly turned into a sectarian brawl involving many children, several of whom were injured.
 
The latest violence peaked on Friday 14 February. During the day two Christian volunteer policemen were attacked at the village station by a group of Druze youths. The volunteers called relatives for help and several of the Druze and one Christian were injured in the fighting.
 
Later the masked gang took over the village centre shooting over people’s heads and setting cars on fire, according to witnesses. At around 9pm the missile was fired at the church.
 
The village police station, staffed by two Jewish officers from the Karmiel division, was established after the October 2000 demonstrations in which 13 Arab citizens in the Galilee were shot dead by the security forces. The station is designed to make the police more involved with the community and more responsive to its needs. But villagers say the police have kept well away from the trouble. No arrests for the late-night attacks have been made.
 
When violence erupted in the village centre on 14 February, a large contingent of police from Karmiel arrived to cordon off the area but avoided confronting the youths. Witnesses say they watched from a safe distance as shops and houses were attacked.
 
The villagers were so outraged by the authorities’ refusal to crack down on the criminals that they demonstrated in front of the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem a fortnight ago. They say the protest finally provoked a response: the police searched several homes last week, weapons were found and five youths arrested.
 
“Ask yourself a question: how long would it be before the police made arrests if a missile was fired at a synagogue?” said Gandoor. “The culprits would be behind bars the same afternoon.”
 
It is a view shared by Amir Makhoul, head of Ittijah, which represents Arab non-profit organisations in Israel. “Policing is not seen as a priority in Arab areas. As long as the Jewish majority are not affected, the official view seems to be to leave us to it, even when people are firing rockets at churches.”
 
He believes, however, that the problem is more than just official negligence.
 
“It is Israeli government policy to encourage fights and divisions within the minority to fuel disunity and fears as a way to weaken us,” he said. “We of course must take a share of responsibility for failing to resist such manipulation.”
 
The events at Rama are far from isolated. In fact, such clashes risk triggering inter- communal violence elsewhere in the Galilee.
 
Sectarian feuds famously occurred between Christian and Druze villagers in Kfar Yasif and Yirka 20 years ago and rumble on to this day. And Muslim and Christian families fought a two-year battle in the Galilean village of Turan from April 1997 that led to a spate of firebombings and the death of one Christian.
 
The most famous example of sectarian violence occurred in Nazareth at Easter 1999 when Muslims and Christians fought in the city’s streets over Muslim attempts to build a mosque close by the main church, the Basilica of the Annunciation. Thirty-one people were injured in a day of clashes.
 
The authorities hand in those clashes was all too visible, says Jafar Farah, head of the Mossawa centre, which lobbies in the Knesset for the rights of the Arab minority in Israel.
 
“When the government’s policy is to turn Arab areas into ghettos by confiscating land, it is easy to inflame tension. Everyone is fighting to keep their little patch of land.” He blames the authorities for encouraging the group behind the Shihabuddin mosque to make increasingly militant demands and for refusing to step in and calm the situation when it threatened to turn ugly.
 
He adds: “As in all societies, there are problems with hate speech among the minority and we must do our best to stamp it out. But only the state has the resources to educate against racism, enforce order and protect citizens. We cannot be expected to disarm criminal gangs that have been supplied with weapons by the state.”
 
He points out that although funds are made available to pay for programmes in Jewish schools so that pupils learn about communal differences between Ashkenazi, Russian, Middle Eastern and Ethiopian Jews, no money is set aside for similar programmes in Arab schools.
 
“It is important we learn about our neighbours, about Christians, Muslims, Druze and Bedouin. We must teach our children to be clever enough not to fall into this trap of ‘divide and rule’ the authorities want to be our fate.”

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