A fire that badly damaged a church containing fifth-century mosaics, in Tabgha in the Galilee in the north of present-day Israel, has underlined the threat to Palestinian history and culture – as well as to lives and livelihoods – posed by extremists in Israel.
The fire was said to have started in several places around the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, a strong indication that it was set deliberately, according to investigators.
Hebrew graffiti painted on the outside of the church invoked biblical passages calling on the faithful to destroy the “idols” of pagans.
Christian tradition holds that the church marks the place where Jesus performed the miracle of the feeding of 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fishes. The modern-day church was built in the 1980s over early Christian remains, including a set of famous Byzantine mosaics depicting the miraculous fishes. The mosaics were not damaged in the blaze.
Images of the destruction show a completely burnt-out roof, but stone walls still standing. A local fire chief told Reuters that there was “extensive damage, both inside and out.”
Desiree Bellars, a volunteer at the church from South Africa who lives at the site, told Reuters that the blaze erupted in middle of the night: “All the electricity went out, the fire raged and the flames shot up into the sky.”
The same church suffered an earlier attack in 2014, in which Israeli youths were witnessed “pelting worshippers with stones, destroying a cross and throwing benches into the lake.”
The attack bears many of the hallmarks of settler “price tag“ attacks, assaults by extremist settler groups, many of which have been on Christian sites. Sixteen youths from West Bank settlements, including the extremist stronghold Yitzhar, were arrested soon after the attack, but released just a few hours later without charge.
Other sites that have suffered similar attacks include another church in Tabgha and a mosque in Fureidis, both in the Galilee region, in 2014, and a Greek Orthodox seminary in Jerusalem in 2015.
In recent weeks, tensions rose in Jerusalem when Jewish extremists barricaded themselves in the Cenacle, a site in the Old City where Christians believe Jesus and his disciples held the Last Supper. The extremists, who were forcibly removed by Israeli police, were attempting to prevent Christians from holding Pentecost celebrations there.
Monks from the Benedictine Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem have also complained that they are increasingly the targets of “hate crimes” ranging from spitting, verbal attacks and vandalism.
A spokesperson for the abbey told the Catholic News Service that so-called Hilltop Youth, Israelis associated with the most radical elements of the West Bank settler movement, were responsible for the attacks and police were doing nothing to stop them.
The Joint Arab List, a coalition of Palestinian political parties in Israel, reacted to the Tabgha arson by calling for the “immediate dismissal of Israel’s police chief, Yohanan Danino, and for right-wing extremist groups to be declared terrorist organizations,” Haaretz reports.
Despite statements that the incident would be investigated as a matter of urgency, the Joint Arab List accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of stirring up ethnic tensions.
The government “does not give the police orders and doesn’t invest any effort” to stop such attacks, the Joint Arab List said, “and the result is more radical deeds.”
“Netanyahu stands at the head of the incitement system against the Arab public in Israel, and he is guilty of the revenge attacks we witness in the morning news,” the party stated. “A so-called price-tag attack is not an act by deviants, but rather an act by calculated, thinking people that are indicative of the existence and repercussions of institutionalized racism and oppression.”