Friday, February 1, 2008

The Nazareth Book – a Prospectus.


By Raphael Israeli


 This book is about a controversy that  been gripping the Arab  community in Israel over the past few years and pitting its  growingly  combative Muslim majority against the smaller, doubly marginalized and  struggling for survival Christian minority. While this struggle has brewed under the surface for many years, it has  now come to the fore as an open, and often violent conflict, in the context of the Shihab-a Din Affair in Nazareth.

In the first decades of Israel's existence Arab politics were dominated by either tribal notables, who were themselves  protégés of the establishment parties such as Mapai, the antecedent of today's Labor,  which ruled the country until 1977, or the Christian founders and leaders of the Communist Party who championed the Arab-nationalist cause, it being understood that as Marxists they did not have to embrace the Islamic elements of most Arab nationalist movements. However, as they were gradually pushed to the sidelines by the much faster growing Muslim community which constituted the rank and file of the Party and as young Muslim members climbed the ladder of the leadership and displaced the founders, personal jealousies compounded by  a fierce sense of frustration over the loss of their positions, drove the Christians to their double alienation, from the country as an Arab minority and from their  Muslim fellow Arabs as a Christian, and now displaced,  minority among them.

There is no doubt that two powerful parallel processes have precipitated the rift between those two communities into the open : on the one hand the rise of the Islamic Movement in Israel since the late 1980's' and at about the same time the collapse of communism throughout the world. The two processes were linked inasmuch as there  developed a zero-sum rapport of force between them: the rise of Islam drove away many former communists into the arms of the Islamic parties, and the waning away of communism, which used to be the bastion of Arab nationalism, encouraged many  Muslims into the open arms of the fundamentalists, who came up with a new program to incorporate those lost souls  and provide them with new ideological and political anchors.

When Muslim fundamentalists in the city of Nazareth, which was Christian but is now 70% Muslim, invaded the plaza in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation on Christmas Eve in 1997, they signaled that they wanted their Muslim majority to be brought to bear in the conduct of  their local affairs. Their demands were clear: since they claimed that the plaza was waqf (Holy Endowment) land, they must enforce a total cessation to the work of paving the plaza, initiated by the Municipality and the Government in order to accommodate the Pope and the millions of pilgrims expected for the Millennium ceremonies, and instead build a mosque on the premises. The grandiose plans advanced by the squatters, to erect a minaret 87 m high, which would have both dwarfed the Basilica and obstructed the view to it, showed that the plans were conceived well in advance and revealed once the Islamists thought the opportunity had come.

Previously, a school occupied that plot of land, which belonged to the Israeli government who allowed the Municipality to destroy it in order to make way for the plaza and the Millennium festivities. As long as the school operated, no Muslims ever raised any opposition to the Millennium plans, but after the plaza was cleared and the work started, the Muslims decided to strike. They feared that if their now-Muslim city were allowed to become the focus of Christian celebrations which might fixate in world public opinion its image as a Christian city, their quest to  tarnish that image might be irreversibly harmed. They said very clearly to this author, who was appointed a member of the Commission of Inquiry to provide solutions to the rift, that they would rather suffer the economic backlashes of the rift, which would deprive them of tourism and pilgrims, than witness the ongoing encroachment on their cities by world Christianity.

The Israeli government adopted the process of law and petitioned the courts to order both the evacuation of the squatters from  a land that was not evidently theirs, and the demolition of the vast tent-mosque that was erected illegally on that ground. The very fact that the government made itself ready to negotiate with the invaders turned the issue from a simple  criminal case of squatting and violation of urban planning laws, into  a contentious affair and a cause celebre which attracted the attention of the media and of public opinion throughout the world. In the meantime, two election campaigns took place which helped immobilize the situation : in  1988, the local elections were fought against the background of the mounting tension between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth, where the Shihab-a -Din Mosque Project became the key issue and helped the Islamists to conquer the majority in the City Council, and then the national elections in 1999, where Ehud Barak from the Labor Party battled to depose incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu of the Likkud, and was much in need of the Arab-Muslim vote to achieve his goal.

Indeed, immediately after Barak's election, with the massive support of the Arabs, he set up a ministerial committee which gave its stamp of consent to the building of the mosque, albeit on a reduced scale. But then the courts delivered their judgment in October 1999, which lashed out at the Islamists' claims of ownership as having no leg to stand on, but since the land belonged to the government, it could formally yield it to whoever it wished. However, the point was not lost on anyone that by yielding to the illegal squatters, the government had both accepted the norm set by the Islamists that by invading property and using force and threats, they are rewarded in the final analysis, something indisputably inimical to the rule of law; and that by giving up its rights on that plot of land, the government was unnecessarily arousing the wrath of the Christian world, not only of the local Christian denominations, against Israel.

As the Christian pressures built up, which involved the Pope in person and President Bush, the government of Ariel Sharon  took up the issue once again and decided to rescind the previous government's decision and cancel the construction of the mosque. But the saga has not ended. Before the Muslims resort to other means, which might explode into violence and bloodshed, they are applying to the Israeli Supreme Court  to reverse the government's decision. More is expected to com. Stay tuned.


Raphael Israeli


The author is a professor of Islam and Middle East at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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