Al-Ahram Weekly – 3 July 2003
Hundreds of heavily armed special forces sealed off the centre of Nazareth, Israel’s only Arab city, yesterday, as the foundations of a large mosque being built next to one of the Middle East’s holiest churches was demolished.
The invasion began shortly before 5am, as Nazareth was still sleeping. The first warning was the drone of a police helicopter overhead followed at about 5.30am by a voice — quickly cut short — calling over the mosque loudspeakers on Nazarenes to defend their city.
In the heart of the Nazareth, riot police and government officials sealed off the main road, arresting several religious leaders who tried to defend the site, including the deputy mayor, Salman Abu Ahmed. Then three bulldozers began tearing apart the concrete of the mosque’s base, watched from behind cordons by a growing crowd of onlookers.
By midday the destruction was complete but an uneasy standoff ensued until dusk as more than 1,000 Muslims lined up along the opposite side of the main street, across from security forces guarding the site. A protest demonstration was due to take place yesterday, Wednesday.
As the wrecking crews worked, blue signs were erected by contractors on the perimeter wall, announcing that the area was being developed as a public square by the housing ministry.
The destruction had been expected for more than a year, after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came under heavy pressure from the Vatican and President George W Bush to halt construction of the mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation, the spot where Roman Catholics believe the Archangel Gabriel told Mary she would bear Jesus.
The site of the mosque was chosen by Muslim leaders in 1997, ostensibly because it was waqf (Islamic trust) land, lying next to the tomb of Shihab Al-Din, a nephew of Salah Al-Din (Saladin), who defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century.
But more importantly, locating the mosque next to the church was a intentional provocation by Muslims who felt their presence in the city was being overshadowed by the Christian celebrations for the Nazareth 2000 project to mark the millennium, which included a visit by the Pope.
Although Nazareth has traditionally been a Palestinian Christian city, its Muslim population was hugely inflated by refugees from neighbouring villages in the 1948 war that created Israel. Today, Muslims are 70 per cent of the city’s population.
Two government inquiries were set up to examine the running sore of Shihab Al-Din, which culminated in violent clashes between Palestinian Muslims and Christians in April 1999. The second inquiry approved the building of the mosque later that year, and slowly the tension dissipated.
But although the mosque was approved, the authorities dragged their feet over issuing planning permission, possibly under Vatican pressure, and frustrated Muslim leaders began quietly building the mosque without a permit in December 2001. By March 2002 Sharon, at the Pope and Bush’s prompting, had overturned the approval.
The timing of the destruction provoked much comment from community leaders. Although Nazareth district court approved the demolition order, the case was under appeal to the supreme court.
It also followed hot on the heels of the revelation on Monday that Israel had been secretly allowing Jews to visit the Haram Al-Sharif in the Old City of Jerusalem, despite a ruling in October 2000 by the site’s Islamic guardians banning non-Muslims from the compound of mosques.
Several Muslim leaders called the two decisions a “war on Islam”. Palestinian Knesset member Abdel- Malik Dehamshe said: “The new crusade of the Bush- Sharon axis of evil in the world is against Islam. It’s no wonder that on the same day they demolish the foundations of the mosque in Nazareth and announce visits on the Haram Al-Sharif.”
But a more likely explanation was that Sharon’s confidence in taking on the country’s one million- strong Palestinian minority had been significantly boosted by his recent crackdown on the more powerful Islamic Movement of Sheikh Raed Salah.
Salah, the nearest thing the community has to a spiritual leader, was among 16 people arrested in mid- May, accused of funding the activities of the Palestinian militant group, Hamas. The police finally charged Salah last week, after holding him for more than a month.
The Islamic Movement, which regularly stages 50,000-strong demonstrations, has struggled to bring out its followers to back Salah, even though no one in the Arab minority — not even his opponents — believes the charges against him.
The quiescence of the country’s Palestinians citizens is at least partly a reflection of still-fresh memories of the events of October 2000, when 13 of their number were shot dead by the security forces during protests.
Several local observers believed that Sharon may be hoping the destruction of the mosque will revive sectarian differences in the city, which have been forgotten during the Intifada, in time for the municipal elections in October. Control of Nazareth’s council is split between Abu Ahmed’s Islamic faction and the Communist mayor, Ramez Jeraisi.
“Sharon has everything to gain from showing that Palestinian Muslims and Christians cannot live together in harmony,” said Mohammed Zeidan, director of the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) in Nazareth.
“He and other Israeli leaders have helped engineer this confrontation and now they can use it as an excuse to say, ‘Look, if they can’t manage to run Nazareth how can we leave them with control of even a small part of Jerusalem’. It is not a coincidence that this decision comes at a time when Sharon is reasserting his claim to sovereignty over the Haram Al- Sharif.”
Whatever Sharon’s true intentions, it is hard to see how, without a permanent police presence there, the authorities can prevent Muslim worshippers from repossessing the site.
Sheikh Nazim Abu Salim, one of the leaders at Shihab Al-Din, observed: “Okay, they want to make a public square. We are the public too, so how will they stop us from returning there?”