The holy war Israel wants

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 of God.)

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 pray there.

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).