Jerusalem Letter / Viewpoints

No. 428   11 Nisan 5760 / 16 April 2000


Raphael Israeli

Who Has the Tallest House of Worship? / The Communist Era in Nazareth / The Rise of the Islamic Movement / The Marginalization of the Christians / The Dispute Unfolds / The Influence of Local and National Elections / Christian Counter-Pressures / Denouement or Debacle?

Who Has the Tallest House of Worship?

On 21 December 1997, just four days before Christmas, Muslim zealots fenced in the area at the foot of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, declared it waqf land (a Muslim holy endowment), erected a large tent as a provisional mosque, and demanded the construction of a permanent mosque with a towering 86-meter minaret.

This conflict, which pitted Nazareth's Muslim majority (70 percent) against its Christian minority (30 percent), was only the tip of a growing enmity between the two communities during the past decades. As long as nationalist Arab groups within the city had been able to live under the uniting umbrella of the Communist party which ruled the city for decades, questions of religion and communal rivalry were set aside. But with the decline of the communists and other Arab nationalists headquartered in the city, new groups began to emerge, the most important of which are the Islamists. This reflected the demographic transformation of Nazareth, known for its Christian holy sites, into a Muslim city where local Muslims sought to shift its identity on a symbolic level as well to reflect their predominance.

The process of Islamization of Nazareth has been gradual. Sometime after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the traditional Christian majority came to be balanced by the Muslims, mainly due to the influx of refugees who had sought shelter there when their villages were destroyed during the war. Subsequently, the more Westernized and more educated Christians bore fewer children while their Muslim compatriots continued to have large families. As the millennium approached, highlighting the Christian history of the city, the Muslim majority decided to intervene by scuttling the elaborate festivities planned by the Israeli government and the Municipality of Nazareth, headed by its Christian mayor. As part of this effort they sought to construct a mosque which would tower over and dwarf the Christian Basilica of the Annunciation, the largest church in the city.

The Communist Era in Nazareth

Until the mid-1970s, municipal government in Nazareth was dominated by local parties associated with the ruling Mapai party and its derivatives, whose power was based on family connections. These parties were so incompetent in administrative and urban governance that in 1974 Prime Minister Golda Meir appointed a commission of inquiry which recommended the dismantling of the city council and placing city affairs in the hands of an appointed commission manned by officials of the Ministry of Interior.

However, in the municipal elections of 1975, the first where the mayors were directly elected, Tawfiq Zayyad, a Muslim and the rising star of the Communist party (first known as Rakah and then Hadash), who headed a local list of his own creation - the Nazareth Democratic Front - garnered a stunning 70 percent of the vote. His victory, and the establishment of the first communist-led city administration in Israel, created apprehension in the Israeli government which regarded Rakah as an enemy. In consequence, the Ministry of Interior refused to cooperate with Zayyad, probably hoping that his isolation would bring about his downfall.

The Democratic Front led by Zayyad, with the backing of his new city council, revolutionized city politics and the city administration, and was reelected by a landslide in 1979. At that time, Ramiz Jeraisi, a young (27), educated engineer and a Christian, was elected deputy mayor and would become the actual city manager while his boss was engaged in national politics as head of the Hadash party in the Knesset. The charismatic Zayyad became, in effect, the "foreign minister" of Nazareth, lobbying government offices and negotiating with other parties and government ministers on behalf of the city's interests as well as those of all Arabs in Israel. During the nearly two decades that Zayyad served as a powerful spokesman for Nazareth and the Arabs in Israel (until his tragic death in a car accident in 1994), his loyal and devoted deputy, Jeraisi, took care of the affairs of the city.

Zayyad was easily reelected in 1983 and Hadash held a majority in the city council (11 out of 17 seats). Just before the elections, the party journal, Al-Ittihad, published his powerful poem lauding the "Great Egyptian Crossing" in the 1973 war, a demonstration of Arab nationalism for which the Arab voters rewarded him. Zayyad's success in local politics spilled over into national politics when, in the general elections of 1984, more than half the Arab population of Israel voted for Hadash, and the new Committee of Heads of Arab Councils (CHAC) practically adopted the Communist platform at Zayyad's instigation.

Zayyad was also the engine behind the organization of annual summer camps used to mobilize Arab youth for the party. Each year thousands of volunteers, including some from the West Bank and Gaza and even from abroad, would participate in maintenance work throughout the city, mending fences, paving roads, and refurbishing schools, mosques, and cemeteries. Local contractors, as well as the city, donated machinery and materials as well as skilled labor. After the day's work, the participants were given lectures that stressed the importance of volunteer work for the Arabs and for strengthening the links among the Palestinian people. The local Arab press reported extensively on the camps, emphasizing the point that despite discrimination suffered by the Arab towns and villages in terms of state government funding, Hadash was there to compensate for this with its spirit and organizational abilities.

The demise of the Soviet Union, followed by the Gulf Crisis of 1990-91, threw the communists into disarray. Zayyad, who continued to be personally popular in Nazareth, had difficulty adapting to the new reality. In the wake of the embarrassment caused by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the pro-Iraqi stance adopted by Arafat, Zayyad declared that the invasion of one Arab country by another had to be pushed aside in the face of the much larger concern about the return of American imperialism to the Middle East. While grassroots support for the communists began to drop significantly, compared with their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the mayor of Nazareth remained a pivotal figure in Arab politics in Israel.

When Zayyad died in the prime of his career, his deputy and fellow party member, Jeraisi, was elected by the Democratic Front's majority on the council as the new mayor. Yet, however talented he was in dealing with city affairs, he had neither the stature nor the religious affiliation that would make him acceptable to the rising new power of the Muslim fundamentalists in city politics. Zayyad, the previous long-time mayor, had been a Muslim and, in spite of his communist "heresy," no one could challenge him due to his popularity in Nazareth during the preceding 20 years. With Zayyad now gone, the Muslim political activists in Nazareth sought to crystallize their constituency not only in support of the Islamic party lists, but also in opposition to the discredited Communist party and its new chief - the Christian Jeraisi.

The Rise of the Islamic Movement

Already by the municipal elections of 1989 it had become evident that the nascent Islamic movement in Israel had turned its focus from the religio-cultural pursuit of "born again" Muslims into a religio-political organization intent on seeking power as a way to implement its program. Five Islamist mayors were elected, including Sheikh Ra'id Salah as the mayor of Umm al-Fahm, the largest Muslim town in Israel. Forty-five Islamic movement councilmen were also elected to various town councils, including Nazareth.

This shift in Arab politics also affected Nazareth quite deeply. Even though the Islamist candidate for mayor, 'Umar Shararah, was defeated by Zayyad, Shararah succeeded nevertheless in gaining a majority of the votes in the Muslim neighborhoods. Zayyad was reelected only due to his personal popularity and the rallying of the Christians in town around the communist Democratic Front in an effort to block the rise of the Muslim fundamentalists.

The national elections of 1992 saw a sharp decline in support for the communists throughout the country. Since the Islamists did not participate in the vote, and the voter turnout among Arabs shrunk from about 73 percent in 1988 to about 70 percent, it is assumed that the Islamists, who shunned the general elections for ideological reasons, continued to abstain from voting. Zayyad was reelected to the Knesset at the head of Hadash, which still received close to 50 percent of the vote in Nazareth, despite the general losses of the party in the city and countrywide. In the local elections of 1993, voter turnout jumped to 90 percent as compared with 70 percent in the national elections a year earlier. This is seen as evidence of the Arab view of local authorities as arenas in which they can vent their political concerns. The Hadash party continued to dominate local Arab politics despite its sharp losses in the national elections. In 1993 the party won 12 mayoralties, down from 15 in 1989, but in Nazareth it registered gains, mainly due to Zayyad's stature. At the same time, the Islamic Movement maintained its strength with 5 mayoralties and 50 local councilmen.

The Marginalization of the Christians

The Christians in Israel, in general, and those of Nazareth who had been the champions of the Communist party in years past, in particular, could not help seeing the writing on the wall: their political status was slipping and the rise of the fundamentalists began to pose a direct threat to them. This generated a loss of self-confidence in their future as a minority within the Arab minority in the country. Even though the more moderate elements within the Islamic Movement in Israel heralded the "links of fraternity between Muslim and Christian Arabs," the Christians are not particularly keen to find themselves living under Islamic Shari'a rule that would relegate them to dhimmi status should its political platform come to pass. Under Islam, the People of the Book - Jews and Christians - are accorded a judicial, political, economic, and social status which is protected but inferior, in return for which they pay a special poll-tax and submit to various kinds of abuse and humiliation.

In 1992, the Islamic Movement organ Sawt al-Haqq wal Huriyya carried an attack against the respected Christian journalist Atallah Mansur for a series of articles he had published criticizing the moral conduct of some Islamist leaders. He was accused of harming Islam, diffusing lies, and harming the integrity of Muslim fundamentalists and Muslim women. He was condemned as a racist and a war-monger who sowed discord among the Arabs of Israel. Mansur sued in a court of law and was compensated for the libel, but the Christians in general continued to sense that the State of Israel, as a democratic state, ought to prohibit by law incitement against them. The Christians simply ignored, or were not aware of, similar incitement against Jews which went unpunished by the authorities.

Attacks and condemnations of Christians are also heard in mosques, sermons, and publications of the Muslim Movement. On the eve of the Id al-Ad'ha festival in 1996 (a major festival in the Islamic calendar known also as the Feast of Immolation), a leaflet was distributed in Umm al-Fahm which accused local youth of improper behavior "mimicking that of Jewish and Christian Unbelievers." A copy of the manifesto reached Nazareth and caused outrage there which was reflected in the local press, owned and edited by Christians of the al-Sinara and Kul-al'Arab families. Yet, in response, far from counter-attacking, the Christians reacted like a dhimmi people, singing the praises of the Muslim ruler while he beats them. They protested that they were as good as any other Arabs, pointing to their contributions to Arab culture and history, which only encouraged additional onslaughts upon them.

In June 1996, an Arab-Christian psychology student surveyed high school students in Nazareth with questions regarding the identity of Christians in Israel. The questionnaire he circulated among students at the Baptist school in Nazareth, which had been completed by other Christian students in other towns in Israel without problems, triggered a sudden storm of controversy that was widely echoed in the Arab and national media including the Islamic Sawt al-Haqq. Again, in a sycophant manner, even the Christian writers who tried to fend off the Muslim (and some Christian) attacks heaped blame on their coreligionist, who was accused of "sowing the poison of racism and division between Arab Christians and Arab Muslims." The school authorities were also blamed for permitting the circulation of the questionnaire.

Another case in point was a conflict around land ownership in Nazareth, which was to become the antecedent of the much larger dispute that was to erupt in 1997-99. During Zayyad's term as mayor, a mosque was built without the requisite city permit at Nabi Sa'in, the location of the tomb of a local Muslim saint, which dominates the city from the surrounding heights, in close proximity to a Christian monastery. The illegally constructed mosque later received a retroactive permit when the city leaders realized that their intervention would kindle a clash with the Muslim majority. The growing Muslim Movement in Nazareth then proceeded to claim that an adjacent 213-dunam area was waqf land, while the municipality insisted that it owned the property. The local Christians feared that Muslim claims to property that was not theirs under the pretext of it being waqf land was but a stratagem to pursue the takeover by Muslims of the Christian city of Nazareth. At the same time, the Muslim success was evident in that neither the Christian minority nor the Israeli authorities were up to meeting the challenge raised by the Muslim Movement. The Christians did not want to further raise the Muslims' wrath against them, although they were unable to arrest that process. The Israelis were unwilling to clash with the Muslims of Israel in general.

The Dispute Unfolds

At the beginning of the 1990s during Zayyad's term as mayor of Nazareth, the idea was raised to undertake a wide-ranging development program for the city for the end of the century and the millennium. Central to the Nazareth 2000 project was the construction of a plaza at the foot of the Basilica of the Annunciation, known as the City Square project.

Back in 1994, Salman Abu Ahmed, the head of the as yet unobtrusive Islamist opposition group on the Nazareth city council, had proposed that a new city hall building be erected on the land at the foot of the Basilica. The city council rejected Abu Ahmed's motion at the time on the grounds that such a teeming public structure at that critically clogged location would further hamper the already impossible traffic conditions at the spot.

In January 1997, the city council adopted a resolution, with Abu Ahmed present and with no opposition, to construct the City Square in line with the Nazareth 2000 project. However, another council member did ask for an inquiry about whether the land belonged to the waqf, and his request was recorded in the minutes. Customarily, waqf lands in towns settled continuously over centuries are well-known and well-demarcated. Their trustees watch them and use them and make sure that no one trespasses onto them, while the local Muslim courts ensure that their management is in accordance with Shari'a law. This is all the more so in a town which had been under Muslim rule for most of its history, and where Islamic jurisdiction had been applied all along.

On 19 December 1997, as the construction on the plaza gathered momentum, the head of the Nazareth Waqf Board, Abu Nawwaf, demanded to see the mayor and presented him with a plan to erect an enormous mosque in the city square, a plan which obviously had been concocted long before it was revealed to the public. The mosque project would dwarf the entire Nazareth 2000 project, and its 86-meter-high minaret, topped by a glass panoramic observatory, would overshadow the adjacent basilica. Horrified but composed, Mayor Jeraisi suggested that the plan be submitted, as required, to the city, and then the district and national urban planning commissions for review.

Abu Nawwaf and his group were faced with the prospect of a lengthy bureaucratic process that would allow the construction of the City Square in front of the Basilica to become a fait accompli. So two days later, Abu Nawwaf and a group of followers constructed a huge tent in the square, lined it with carpets, and declared it a temporary mosque pending the construction of a permanent one. The move transformed the Nazareth City Square from the focal location of millennium celebrations in front of the splendid Basilica, into a disputed patch of land where a new mosque had an equal right to be built.

The authorities were slow to respond in light of the unfolding Ramadan and the approaching Christmas holidays. This allowed the Muslims to rally support and win the local elections in 1998, capturing a majority on the city council. Now Abu Nawwaf and his people, backed by the vast support of the general population, maintained a round-the-clock watch to physically protect their new acquisition. Threats of bloodshed were voiced if the squatters were evacuated by force, hence the interest of all concerned to resolve the issue peacefully.

Legal suits were initiated by the Israeli government, the legal owner of the plot, but it was clear that a court ruling would take a long time, and in the meantime the Muslims reinforced the walls of the tent with bricks and concrete to withstand the vagaries of winter. With daily prayers, the newly functioning mosque became a regular feature of the city center, and work on the plaza in preparation for the millennium was frozen.

The affair now became known as the "Shihab a-Din controversy," since Shihab a-Din, a nephew of the glorious Saladin, was said to have been buried adjacent to the grounds under dispute. His tomb, which was indeed part of waqf property, had existed since the Middle Ages on that spot, but it had never attracted much attention nor had it been a center of worship. Now the Islamists claimed that the entire area, including the tomb and the plaza, were part of the same waqf property, and they applied the powerful mobilizing symbol of Saladin (via his nephew) to raise passions and enlist the support of Muslims in Nazareth and elsewhere.

The Influence of Local and National Elections

The Shihab a-Din controversy became the focal point of the local election campaign in November 1998. Six different Islamist splinter groups coalesced to run as one faction for the city council, with Salman Abu Ahmed as their candidate for mayor to displace Jeraisi, the Christian incumbent. While Jeraisi barely retained his position as mayor, a tribute to his personal merit, the Islamists won the majority of the seats on the city council (11 out of 21). This result paralyzed the city, where the mayor's executive power was countered by the majority vote of the Islamists on anything he attempted to do, until he acceded to their demands regarding Shihab a-Din. No governing coalition could be formed to manage the city, no deputies were elected to help the mayor carry out his tasks, no personnel could be appointed, no budget was approved, and the Nazareth 2000 project ground to a standstill. In April 1999, Minister of Interior Eli Swissa appointed a commission of inquiry to recommend either the appointment of a public board to manage the city or new local elections if mediation between the parties could not solve the dispute. However, the commission soon realized that the main obstacle to the functioning of the city was the Shihab a-Din dispute, whose lack of resolution blocked the formation of a city council coalition.

Matters became further complicated with the announcement of general elections in Israel to be held in May 1999. The prime ministerial campaigns of both major parties sought the votes of the Islamists in Nazareth. Emboldened by their new position of power, the Islamists refused several compromise solutions offered to them by the Netanyahu government and the commission of inquiry which would have allowed them to build a mosque on the grounds, although smaller than they had requested. At the same time, Ministry of Tourism and Nazareth Municipality officials watched their dreams of the Nazareth 2000 project dissipate before their eyes.

In the May 1999 elections, Ehud Barak, together with the Labor party, made a considerable impact in the Arab community. Prior to the elections, far-reaching demands had been negotiated between the Labor party and the United Arab List, of which the moderate Islamists were part, which were to allow the Muslims of Israel to be recognized as a separate community and also, by implication, for a solution of the Shihab a-Din controversy to the Islamists' liking. The authors of the Arab list of demands, Knesset member Talib a-Sani' and Islamist candidate Tawfiq al-Khatib, wrote to Barak on 12 April 1999 demanding, inter alia, that:

It is not known to what extent the Labor party and/or Barak responded to these demands, but it was assumed that massive Arab support for the Labor candidate would generate openness and understanding on the part of a new Labor-led government.

Attempts to resolve the dispute were also made within the Arab community itself. Muslim religious leaders in Israel, soliciting support from religious authorities in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Syria, claimed that the disputed land was waqf property and that a mosque should be built there. The Islamist Sawt al-Haqq wal Huriyya further explained their objection to the construction of the plaza as part of the Nazareth 2000 project, seeing it as "issuing a definitive [Christian] identity card to the city of Nazareth."

Christian Counter-Pressures

Counter-pressure began to build from Christian quarters inside and outside of Israel against the building of the mosque. Within Israel, Christians were torn between their loyalty to their fellow Arabs and a wish to resolve the conflict "within the family," and their horror at the specter of being crushed by the Muslim majority and the mounting aggressiveness of the Islamists. This might explain the willingness of the Christian leadership to join the appeal of the notables of the Arab community in Nazareth on 5 April 1998 to go along with the Islamists' demands.

At the same time, the Christians in Israel understood the need to appear to their foreign benefactors as being committed to the cause of Christianity in the Holy Land. Israeli government offices soon became busy reporting international Christian concerns and contacting Christian organizations, trying to explain and mitigate their fears:

Unexpectedly, Knesset member 'Azmi Bishara, an outspoken Arab nationalist, came to the help of the Christians, stating in Al-Sinara:

A place which had no particular historical significance [for Muslims] was made a pivot of solidarity and for the growth of a new collective [Islamic] identity that had never been known in Nazareth, where relations of communal fraternity had always prevailed....The Nazareth 2000 project aimed at simply underlining the major tourist sites in the city, and it was not to blame if there were no Islamic sites at that location. A similar situation exists in Bethlehem, where the Holy Places are all Christian despite the Muslim majority of the population....This is as if voices are raised to build holy places for the Muslims in Nazareth [to rival the Christians].

Denouement or Debacle?

After the May 1999 elections, the new government set up a ministerial committee on Arab affairs whose mandate included the resolution of the Nazareth dispute. The government yielded to the Islamists' demand and acceded to their mosque project, knowing full well that it would scuttle the Nazareth 2000 project, but their decision was not unprecedented.

On 15 April 1999, the outgoing government had appointed a commission of inquiry to deal with the Nazareth crisis, but before it had a chance to convene, the cabinet resolved on 18 April to respond partially to the Islamists' request and allow a mosque to be built on an area of 504 square meters, half of it true waqf land on which the tomb of Shihab a-Din stood, and the rest taken from the planned 1,905 square meter City Plaza. The cabinet resolution did not mention the Basilica of the Annunciation by name, and claimed that the government had decided to build the mosque in order "to alleviate tensions" in Nazareth.

At the same time, the commission of inquiry was completing its report. The commission recognized the lack of foundation of the Islamist claim to the disputed land as waqf property, but was split in its recommendations. The three members who had led the efforts toward a negotiated resolution and had offered the compromise of the outgoing government as a basis for a settlement were in favor of continuing those efforts. They ultimately expanded the original government offer to 750 square meters and recommended that the new government adopt it, which it did. The fourth member of the commission submitted a minority report which warned against the far-reaching implications of any compromise in light of the anticipated Christian reaction.

On the day in November when the Islamists laid the cornerstone for their mosque, the Christians in Israel closed the doors of their churches in protest. The Vatican issued a strong reprimand of Israel, accusing it of causing the tensions between the various communities. The Christians in Israel were devastated by the decision of the Israeli government, especially after the October 1999 Nazareth District Court ruling which rejected all the claims of the Islamists and, in fact, vindicated both the Christian counter-claims and the commission of inquiry's minority report. The State of Israel ended up being condemned by the Christians, despised by the Islamists, criticized by the court for not having waited for the termination of the legal proceedings before acting, and the paralysis of the Nazareth municipality continued. A few days later the Tiberias District Court, which reviewed other aspects of the same dispute, also reprimanded the Islamists for their false claims regarding the waqf, and blasted the government and its reasoning. holy sites

After Israel ceded Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority in 1995, the influence of Islam in that city grew stronger. In light of this, the Christians look with horror at the present Islamization of Nazareth, presenting the nightmare that the third most important Christian holy place in the Holy Land might also be turned over to the Muslims. In Nazareth, the Shihab a-Din mosque will be erected under the watching eyes of Israel, a new holy shrine for the Muslims that will dwarf the Basilica of the Annunciation and obscure the Christian nature of the city.

The Arabs in Israel in general, and the Islamists in particular, have learned from the Nazareth experience that if they are persistent enough and aggressive enough, they will have their way since they can rally the Muslim majority among the Arabs in Israel for any showdown with the government, and certainly with the Christians in the country. They have also learned that they hold the key in any future election for the Labor candidate for prime minister. They have also internalized the methods of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties which support whichever side satisfies their particular sectorial needs.

The Arabs would have even greater leverage if they acted in a unified bloc (like the Shas party). However, being bitterly divided between Islamists and communists, Muslims and Christians, modern secularists and new-age traditionalists, and Arab nationalists and malleable Israelis, the political impact of the Arabs in Israel is much diluted.

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Raphael Israeli is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He served on the commission of inquiry appointed by the Israeli government in April 1999 to investigate the dispute between Muslims and Christians in Nazareth regarding the erection of a mosque on the grounds adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation. He is the author of numerous books and articles including Fundamentalist Islam and Israel: Essays in Interpretation (JCPA and University Press of America, 1993), and Muslim Fundamentalism in Israel (Brasseys', 1993). This article is part of a book-length study now in preparation.

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