Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 March 2006
Issue No. 786
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The enemy within

Ahead of limited withdrawals from the West Bank, Israel's focus is shifting to the threat posed by Arab-Israelis to the idea of a Jewish state, reports Erica Silverman from Nazareth

Click to view caption
The campaign office of Kadima Party (far left) and the Red Mosque

"I say that the Israeli Arabs are a time bomb underneath the whole democratic system in Israel. The state of Israel now faces an existential threat that has the character of an elusive threat; and the nature of elusive threats is they resemble cancer," asserted Knesset member Efi Eitam of the National Religious Party during an interview with Haaretz newspaper. During a 22 February debate before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Eitam asked acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert why the Israeli government does not hasten to demolish illegally constructed homes in Arab-Israeli communities, reported Haaretz.

Jewish Israelis ignite explosives in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, an Arab-Israeli city nearly two-thirds Muslim -- not surprisingly, immediately after the attack thousands of Nazarenes charged with emotion gathered outside the church. Basilica members and worshipers, almost exclusively Arab, were targets of the attack. The following day 3,500 marched through Nazareth in protest joined by church leaders. Arab-Israelis viewed the "terror" attack as yet another act of aggression against an Arab minority, Christian and Muslim alike, and proof that Israeli society permits and condones an atmosphere of racism and violence against Arabs.

Haim and Violet Habibi, and their adult daughter, entered the Basilica on 3 March and set off "firecrackers" from a "baby carriage containing detonators and gas canisters," Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzabella, "custos" of Christian sites in the Holy Land, told Al-Ahram Weekly. The Basilica is one of three most sacred Christian sites worldwide. The Higher Israeli Arab Monitoring Committee has called on the Israeli government to "take full responsibility for the incident in the Church of the Annunciation and deal with forces considering attacks on holy sites; forces that developed against a backdrop of hatred and the defiance of the Arab public."

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni expressed regret over the incident to the Vatican, although there was no formal apology to the Arab community. Israeli officials deny the assailants were motivated by racial hatred, labeling the family as "mentally ill". Knesset member Ahmed Tibi (Arab Movement for Renewal) asked, "Why is it that when a Jewish extremist goes crazy, he burns a mosque or blows up a church? This is a sickness of racism and hatred of Arabs, Muslims and Christians alike."

Seemingly, the Habibis entered Nazareth's White Mosque, finding no worshipers before proceeding to the church. The family was also arrested in 2002 for attacking the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, according to Father Pizzabella. Auxiliary Bishop Giacinto-Boulous Marcuzzo of Jerusalem has been receiving a stream of politicians and Jewish clergy in Nazareth since the attack, including Amir Peretz and senior Labour Party leaders, and numerous MKs eager to make an appearance in the run-up to the 28 March Israeli parliamentary elections.

Bishop Marcuzzo told the Weekly he is trying to deliver three messages: "We can't assure a future to this country without a basic foundation of mutual acceptance of cultural and religious differences," adding, "the legal protection of minorities in Israel must be improved" while referencing the Shefaamr Amr massacre in which a Jewish terrorist took the lives of four Arab-Israelis in protest of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza; that "those in charge of mosques and churches must protect these holy places for their communities;" and that "We want the Christian community to feel protected and comfortable in their homes and not to leave."

"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?" Archbishop Eliyas Shakur said.

Meanwhile, in the northern city Safed -- almost exclusively Jewish -- the Kadima Party, frontrunner in the upcoming elections, decided to turn a section of the historical Red Mosque into a campaign office. Approaching the ancient mosque two large signs are plastered near the carved stone entranceway. Bearing red Hebrew letters, one reads "Church" with a large arrow pointing to the doors, and the second reads "The Red Hostel," with an arrow pointing to apartments located on the second level. A "For Rent" sign sits in the window.

Minister of Waqf and Religious Affairs Sheikh Yousef Salama characterised the office as another violation of Muslim holy sites by the Israeli government. Al Daher Beibers, who took control of Safed from the crusaders, built the Red Mosque in 1276 AD, naming it after the red brick used in its construction. Today the mosque is under the supervision of the Safed Foundation, a non-profit organisation registered in New York that according to their web site works to preserve "the city's golden age of Jewish scholarship and mysticism".

Before 1948 Safed was home to 11,000 Palestinians and eight mosques, according to the UN Conciliation Committee for Palestine. The Arab Association for Human Rights (AAHR) reported in December 2004 that some 250 non-Jewish places of worship were destroyed during or since the 1948 war, or made inaccessible to Arab-Israelis.

The 1967 "Protection of Holy Sites Law" in theory protects mosques, but the government has implemented regulations for only Jewish sites, according to the US State Department 2005 Country Report on Human Rights for Israel. In November 2004, Adalah, a legal centre for Arab rights, petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to compel the government to issue regulations protecting Muslim sites from desecration. The court accepted the petition and ordered the government to respond by January 2006.

In early February, Shmuel Eliyahu, chief Rabbi of Safed and member of the Chief Rabbi's Council, was indicted in the Nazareth District Court for racist incitement. Eliyahu told Israel Radio in August 2004 that, "It's forbidden in Jewish law, by the way, to sell apartments to Arabs and to rent apartments to Arabs." In August of 2002, the leading Zionist figure issued a passionate call to remove all Arab students from the university in Safed.

Unlicensed Arab homes in Northern and Southern Israel are under constant threat of state demolitions; places of worship are not exempt, explained Mohamed Zeidan, director of AAHR. In Nazareth, there are 70,000 residents living on 14,200 dunums of land in the Arab sector of the city, while there are 50,000 residents living on 47,000 dunums of land in Nazareth Elith -- the Jewish sector of the city -- forcing illegal development in Nazareth proper. Arab-Israelis comprise 20 per cent of the population yet own only 2.5 per cent of land in Israel, prohibiting natural development.

In the south, unrecognised villages in the Negev are under constant threat, existing on land the government has designated for agriculture. Two weeks ago five homes in Mum Tnan village were demolished and 100 more are slated to be razed post- elections. Thousands of Arab-Israelis from the north and south gathered for a solidarity march in the Negev recently. Approximately 140,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev, half in seven state-planned communities and eight recognised communities, the rest in 37 unrecognised villages. Unrecognised villages pay taxes, but are not connected to the national water and electricity infrastructure, and are ineligible for government educational, health and welfare services.

This week Prime Minister Olmert reiterated Kadima's plan to reduce spending on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and to divert "billions" to infrastructure projects in Jerusalem and the Galilee and Negev regions.

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