- The inhabitants of Nazareth, Israel's only Arab city,
often talk of the "invisible occupation": although they rarely
see police -- let alone soldiers -- on their streets, they are held in
a vise-like grip of Israeli control just as much as their ethnic kin in
neighbouring Palestinian cities like Jenin and Nablus are.
- In September 2000, for example, when Israel's one million
Palestinian citizens, including Nazarenes, demonstrated against Ariel Sharon's
visit to the mosque compound in Jersualem -- known to Muslims as Haram
al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount -- 13 of their number were shot
dead by police in four days. Not a single protester had been armed.
- Last week the veil was again briefly lifted from the
occupation inside Israel. More than 500 heavily armed police officers stormed
Nazareth's city centre at dawn, arresting a handful of Muslim clerics and
demolishing the foundations of a mosque that has been making headlines
since a "holy tent" was first erected in 1998 at the site of
the grave of Shihab ad-Deen, the nephew of Salah ad-Deen.
- In all the excitement over Israel's withdrawals from
Gaza and Bethlehem, the invasion of Nazareth was overlooked, except in
the Hebrew press, where it was presented as a brave attempt by the government
to rein in lawlessness and calm religious tensions in a city that is now
70 per cent Muslim and 30 per cent Christian.
- But the case of Nazareth's "rogue" mosque is
far more complicated than this -- and potentially more revealing of the
political games Israel is playing with the delicate balance of forces between
the country's religious communities.
- In fact, far from being patently illegal, the mosque
had actually won approval from two governments, Binyamin Netanyahu's in
1998 and Ehud Barak's in 1999. Both backed the plan, even though the mosque
was to be located a few provocative yards from one of the holiest churches
in the Middle East, the Basilica of the Annunciation. (Built on the site,
say Catholics, where the Virgin Mary was told she was carrying the son
- Violent clashes briefly erupted between Christians and
Muslims in the wake of these decisions.
- The government's position, however, changed last year,
apparently after the Pope and President George W. Bush got wind that local
Muslims had started laying the mosque's foundations.
- Bush put heavy pressure on Sharon to intervene, and dutifully
the Israeli prime minister set up a committee to consider the question
again. It used a loophole -- that the building work had begun before all
the official papers had been received -- to justify finding against the
mosque's completion in March 2002.
- There has been plenty of unhelpful hyperbole from Muslim
clerics about the mosque destruction being a "war on Islam,"
but one point they make is worth examining.
- Why, in the same week as the demolition, they ask, did
Israel reveal it was allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem's Haram/Temple
Mount complex? Non-Muslims have been banned from the area since Sharon's
visit 33 months ago unleashed the intifada (as de facto have most Palestinians,
who can longer get permits to enter Jerusalem). For a government so zealously
concerned about sectarian provocations, this was a strange decision.
- In fact, Jews demanding to go to the mount are mainly
Messianic extremists who want to destroy the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock
mosques and replace them with a reconstruction of the Second Temple. Mainstream
Jews have been prohibited from the site since rabbis banned prayer there
in the Middle Ages.
- But that has not stopped the government from promoting
Jewish claims to the mount. In May the public security minister Tzachi
Hanegbi became the latest cabinet minister to say it was time to let Jews
- The Israeli government's behaviour in Nazareth is equally
baffling. Despite newspaper claims, the city's Christians and Muslims forgot
their differences a while ago, with the outbreak of the intifada and the
more pressing concern of how to survive the economic slump. The decision
to demolish the mosque in such a heavy-handed manner is far more likely
to tear the delicate fabric of civic life here. Already there are calls
for the resignation of Nazareth's Christian mayor, Ramez Jeraisi.
- So why do it now? Nazareth's Christians and Muslims unite
in offering a disturbing explanation. They say Israel has a vested interest
in fomenting trouble in their city to show that the two religions cannot
live together in peace. "If they cannot share their holy sites in
Nazareth, how can they ever do so in Jerusalem?" is how Nazarenes
describe the logic of Israeli spin.
- At the end of the long path of the US-backed road map
to a Palestinian state is an international conference to decide the most
charged question of all: who should have sovereignty over Jerusalem and
its holy places, the Israelis or the Palestinians? Both peoples hope to
be rewarded with control of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site.
- In the meantime the struggle for the ultimate prize,
including Israeli attempts to weight the decision in its favour, risks
doing irreparable damage to religious tolerance in the Holy Land.
- Jonathan Cook lives in Nazareth and writes for The Guardian
(UK) and Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt).
- ©2000-2003 electronicIntifada.net