Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth - www.jonathan-cook.net

Basilica burning

Al-Ahram Weekly – 9 March 2006

The news swept across Nazareth last Friday like wildfire. There had been a terror attack on the Basilica of the Annunciation, the huge church in the city centre built over a grotto where Christians believe the archangel Gabriel revealed to Mary she was bearing the son of God.

By 6pm, half an hour after the first explosion, I was with a crowd of Nazarenes pushing their way through the only open gate into the walled-off courtyard of the church. Just visible, as final darkness fell, were faces etched by a mixture of anger and anxiety. Christians and Muslims, who share Nazareth, were equally shocked at the violation of one of the Holy Land’s most sacred spaces.

The attack had begun at 5.30pm, half way through a special service for Lent, attended by hundreds of local Roman Catholics and a handful of tourists. Twelve-year-old Subhi Espanioly, who was there with his grandmother, said he had been startled by a loud explosion followed by coloured smoke.

Subhi and the other members of the congregation huddled together for several terrifying minutes as a series of further explosions were set off. During a lull, a priest and several Nazarenes overpowered a grey-bearded man in jeans, 44-year-old Haim Habibi, an Israeli Jew who was with his wife, Violet, and the couple’s 20-year-old daughter Odelia.

Subhi said that when he arrived for the service he had seen the three of them wheeling a baby’s pushchair around the courtyard, looking at a permanent exhibition of murals and paintings of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus donated by international churches.

After angry bystanders started beating Habibi, priests and a small contingent of local policemen hurried the three intruders into an annex of the church, where they were locked up for their own safety.

By the time of my arrival, the church courtyard and the approach road, Casa Nova, were nearly full. Most of the crowd were silent but young hotheads stood on the roof of the annex building, jeering at the terrorists they assumed were inside.

No one was ready to leave the courtyard. Nazarenes were gripped by the need to show communal solidarity in the face of the latest assault by a Jew on an Arab holy place and on a Palestinian community. Six months ago, in an attempt to stop the disengagement, an Israeli soldier, Natan Eden Zada, used his army rifle to spray a bus with bullets, killing two Christians and two Muslims, in the neighbouring community of Shafa’amr.

He apparently believed he was following in the footsteps of another soldier, Baruch Goldstein, who opened fire at the mosque in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. Other Jewish religious extremists have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to blow up the Haram al-Sharif complex of mosques in Jerusalem in the hope of building the Third Temple in its place.

There was a further reason why the crowd wanted to stay. As they know only too well, justice is rarely done – let alone seen to be done – when it involves punishing Jews for attacks against Arabs. It was difficult to turn away and let these intruders, like so many of their predecssors, walk into the sympathetic embrace of the Israeli authorities. Nazarenes wanted to show anyone who was considering emulating such an attack that the community would not easily allow itself to be a target again.

But despite their steadfastness, ordinary Nazarenes had reason to fear what might come next. The Israeli police have a proven track record when dealing with civic disturbances in Arab communities. Batons and tear gas are always a first line of attack, often followed by rubber bullets. In the first week of the intifada, 13 unarmed Arab citizens, including three Nazarenes, were shot dead by police with rubber bullets and live ammunition during demonstrations. In the intervening period, another 20 Arab citizens have died at the hands of the police in mysterious circumstances.

As ever larger numbers of heavily armed riot police entered the courtyard, they were greeted by widespread hisses.

Over the next two hours, helicopters swept searchlights over the courtyard and the police let off repeated volleys of stun grenades and tear gas but held back from a tougher response. Mistarvim, undercover agents dressed to look like Arab “shibab” (young men) who have been known to provoke clashes during peaceful Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank, were more conspicuous to this close-knit community than they may have realised.

Religious and community leaders there to calm the situation suggested to me that the police restraint on this occasion reflected government concerns about further compounding the violation of holy ground.

Instead, the police drew up a successful plan for evacuating the Habibis. Around 9pm the three intruders were smuggled out of the annex disguised as police officers. At about the same time a police vehicle close to the gate into the church compound was overturned and set on fire. Whether intentionally or not, it provided a very effective distraction from the main event.

As it became clear that the intruders had been taken away, the crowd dispersed. But the evening was not yet over.

Like many others I headed to the main street, Paulus VI, only to find that the police had sealed off roads out of the area. Flashing lights blocked every exit. The police, rather than leaving after successfully extracting the Habibis, apparently wanted to teach Nazarenes a lesson.

As people stood around discusing the events, or grabbed a late felafel, clouds of tear gas enveloped us and the riot police started firing more stun grenades. At least a dozen local people were reported injured in the ensuing clashes.

But it was later events – rather than what the Israeli media referred to as the “model conduct” of the police – that provided an insight into how Israeli governments turn these incidents to their own advantage.

Community leaders had warned me that there would be a predictable train of events, as in other such attacks. The intruders would immediately be dismissed as “crazies”, their attack on one of the holiest places in the Middle East would be downplayed as insignificant, the Arab public would be portrayed yet again as a wild mob, Arab leaders would be severely criticised, the Vatican would keep its head down, Israeli politicians would exploit the incident to the harm of the Arab minority, and the intruders would receive negligible sentences.

Most of the forecasts had come true by the time I reached home that night. Habibi, it was reported by the Israeli media, had let off “firecrackers” in a cry for help. The Shin Bet described him as “mentally unstable”. Nazarenes were referred to as “rioters” who wanted “a lynching”. And the Public Security Minister, Gideon Ezra, accused the Arab MKs of exploiting the incident for electoral advantage.

The minimal Israeli coverage, portraying the attack as unimportant, persuaded most foreign correspondents to overlook the story entirely. Many aspects of the evening were never examined.

Yaman Roq, of the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth, who investigated the attack, observes that in the pushchair – alongside the fireworks – were small gas canisters, together with marbles and metal pieces. “We are being told that this was little more than a joke that got out of hand. In fact, Habibi had a small bomb packed in the pushchair that could have seriously hurt a lot of people if he had detonated it.”

The Israeli media has also concentrated on the personal distress of the Habibis at three of their children being taken into custody (apparently including at least one who was sent to a foster home in a West Bank settlement). As the I’lam media centre in Nazareth observed, these were offered as extenuating circumstances justifying Habibi’s behaviour. Israelis, noted I’lam, “are never alerted to the personal tragedies of Palestinians who commit suicide operations, where the focus is on the nationalistic context of such operations instead.”

One outcome of the attack on the Basilica was a swift and public show of unity by the region’s Christian and Muslim leaders. Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas leader and prime minister designate of the Palestinian Authority, noted that the attack was a result of the “hate culture which Israel is feeding its public against the Palestinians.”

Elias Chacour, the new Greek Catholic bishop, said: “We ask the Israeli government if it is still willing and capable of taking care of its citizens and minorities, or do its citizens need to look after themselves.”

And MK Ahmed Tibi observed: “I understand that this man has a personal problem. But why bring it up by burning a mosque or blowing up a church? The reason is the anti-Arab atmosphere in Israel.”

The day after the attack, on Saturday, a large protest march was led by the community’s leaders, including Christian and Muslim religious officials.

The display of Arab unity provoked an immediate response from the Israeli media and the country’s leaders. The popular Yediot Aharanot newspaper led the accusations against the Muslim leadership in an article headlined “Muslim hitch-hikers on a Christian ride”. According to the I’lam centre, it echoed earlier reports of shock from Israeli correspondents on learning that a Jew had targeted a Christian, as opposed to a Muslim, holy place for attack.

Moshe Katsav, the president of Israel, argued that Israel should be careful not to let the events at the Basilica harm relations between Jewish and Christian citizens – the implication being that he had no qualms about damaging relations with Muslims.

And acting prime minister Ehud Olmert accused the Muslim leadership of “politicising” the attack, before doing the same himself: “There is something almost ridiculous in the fact that the Muslim public, which is intolerant of Christianity and its leaders, is at the forefront of the protest against an incident carried out by a weird couple and is trying to leverage the incident for election campaign purposes.”

Olmert’s attempt to sow the seeds of discord between Christians and Muslims were universally rebuffed. MK Azmi Bishara responded: “What bothered Mr Olmert was the demonstration of unity by the entire Arab public and its leaders against the desecration of this public’s holy sites.”

In the same speech to the cabinet, Olmert defended Israel’s record. “Since Israel’s inception it has been strict in allowing freedom of religion and showed tolerance for all the authorities of the various religions.”

Nazarenes take a different view. They blame the government for trying to inflame religious differences in the city. Since the late 1990s officials have cultivated a group of poor, observant Muslims, encouraging them through the decisions of ministerial committees to build a mosque provocatively close to the Basilica. As a result, there was briefly sectarian fighting on Nazareth’s streets in 1999. Israel finally clamped down on the Muslims when President Bush took against the project in 2003.

There are other examples of abuses that fuel religious tension and hatred. Israel has just begun building a Museum of Tolerance over an ancient Islamic cemetery in Jerusalem, and the govermment is strictly enforcing a policy of keeping Muslim and Christian holy places out of bounds to the Arab public in the hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel following the 1948 war, including recently by wrapping mosques in razor wire.

And during the intifada, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been barred from praying at the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem while Jews have free access to the Western Wall. Few Palestinians doubt that this is the prelude to Israeli attempts to impose its sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif.

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