In the dawn hours of July 1 2003, hundreds of Israeli police and soldiers poured into Nazareth on a mission to dig up the foundations of a mosque being built in the city centre. The pretext for the military operation was that the mosque had been built without a permit. In truth, however, the Israeli government sent in the troops because a long-standing policy of “divide and rule” in Nazareth – effected by fanning the flames of religious hatred – had inadvertently rebounded.
For years the government had cultivated a group of disgruntled observant Muslims in Nazareth, who were encouraged to build a mosque provocatively close to the city’s main church, the Basilica of the Annunciation. These Muslims, mostly from poor refugee families expelled from villages close to Nazareth during the 1948 war, were bitter that they were now a majority (about 70 per cent) of the local population but that power, land and influence remained with Nazareth’s Christian institutions…
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Much of their anger derived from a historic communal grievance: after its creation in 1948, Israel had seized massive quantities of waqf land – held in trust for the Muslim community – and refused to return it. The group claimed the spot where they wanted to build the mosque was once waqf land.
The imminent arrival of Pope John Paul II for the Millennium celebrations in Nazareth, and the international attention it would receive, served only to further antagonise this group of Muslims. Their efforts to build the mosque was a symbolic challenge to the dominance of the church and, by extension, local Christians. Bitter street fights between Christians and Muslims erupted at Easter 1999 over the siting of the mosque.
Extraordinarily, two Israeli ministerial committees of inquiry backed the Muslim group’s claims in the late 1990s to the land next to the Basilica. Extraordinary because it was the first time an Israeli government had ever sanctioned the return of the Muslim waqf lands.
When the group started laying the foundations in early 2003, first the Pope and then President Bush began leaning on the Israeli government. The show of military force was a reminder to all Nazarenes – Muslims and Christians – of where real power resides in a Jewish state.
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