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Living Icons Under Threat?
The Palestinian Minority in Israel

21 March   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

On Friday, 3 rd March, Lenten evening prayer services were being held at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. A Jewish man, along with his wife and daughter, entered the church disguised as Christian pilgrims and pushing a pram filled with fireworks, which they then proceeded to detonate inside this hallowed space of worship. The perpetrators of the attack were apprehended and delivered to the police. The resulting damage was fortunately negligible, and the physical situation in Nazareth quietened down a couple of days later, although the legal ramifications of the incident in terms of any custodial sentences against the perpetrators or other arrests still seem far from over.

Following this latest incident, Israeli officials and media outlets qualified the perpetrators of the attack as being mentally ill, and the police emphasised that this was a personal, rather than religious or nationalist, attack. However, those very statements highlighted the oft-repeated charge by many members of the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel - Christian or Muslim Palestinians who stayed within the borders of Israel when it was established in 1948 and who were granted Israeli citizenship - that the state authorities are not adequately protecting their fundamental rights.

It is our belief that the attack itself, as much as the ensuing reactions, underlined the manifold problems facing the Palestinian minority within Israel. Indeed, this incident - that attracted some mild interest from the world religious or secular media - would perhaps not have been as worrisome and precarious were it not part of a pattern of assaults against places of worship. If we examine the history, origin and methodology of such incidents in the past few decades, we would argue that there is a gradual but nonetheless systemic erosion of the rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel.

No wonder then that the Ha'aretz daily newspaper reported on 8 th March that the Latin-rite Roman Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, had deplored this attack but also stated that Israel's existence depended on relations between ethnic groups and demanded that the government ensure the ability of all sides to live in peace. Earlier, he had also highlighted that the person who tried to perform this attack was born and bred on racist views and wild incitement against Christians in particular and Arabs in general. Along those same lines, and in the same interview, the Greek Melkite Archbishop of Galilee, Elias Chacour, asked the Israeli government "if it is still willing and capable of taking care of its citizens and minorities" or whether "its citizens need to look after themselves." Parallel to his comments, Bishop Hanna Atallah of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate opined on 4 th March in IRNA, "We are being targeted by Jewish racism which seeks to uproot us from our land. I can tell you that those who targeted mosques are now targeting the churches. Hence, we must be united because our common existence is being targeted by these racists."

Arab Members of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) also echoed those overall concerns. MK Ahmed Tibi 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." MK Mohammed Barakeh, Hadash Chairman, retorted angrily, "The issue is not who carried out yesterday's attack in Nazareth, but rather what is next in line. All of these criminals are known to security officials, who bear the responsibility of arresting them and preventing further attacks on the Arab public." Abdul Malik Dahamsheh, another parliamentarian, accused Israel of "treating Jewish extremists with utmost flaccidity" and that "the way the government of Israel deals with these racist thugs encourages them to attack and burn mosques and churches in this land."

In the face of such statements, we believe it is important to probe further into this incident to verify whether it is solely a 'one-off' or part of a pattern of such attacks that are the result of a deliberate policy impacting relations with the Palestinian minority in Israel. In fact, a cursory overview of the situation of this minority reveals endemic structural problems and points out that the attack against the Basilica of the Annunciation was not a solitary incident. After all, previous attacks have also targeted holy shrines: as such, not only do they highlight the fact that the situation today is becoming increasingly less stable, but they also show that the same justifications are used time and again to exculpate the perpetrators of such attacks or to abnegate the element of mens rea or intent behind the actus reus or commission.

Following the incident against the Basilica in Nazareth, the Islamic Movement in Jaffa held a press conference in which its representatives accused the government of "encouraging and inciting" attacks by Jewish extremists on mosques and churches in the country. Using the example of Jewish extremists who threw a pig's head into the courtyard of the Hasan Bek Mosque in Jaffa in August 2005, Sheikh Ra'ed Salah indicated, "The Israeli government is first and foremost responsible for these crimes. Yes, the direct perpetrators are the extremists, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the Israeli government." He pointed out that Israel itself was desecrating mosques and refusing Muslims to reclaim and repair them. Furnishing examples of incidents against Muslim shrines, he referred to the town mosque in Be'er Sheva that was converted into a museum, to the mosque in the northern town of Safad that was also turned into 'a den for prostitutes and drug addicts' as well as to the use of the Red Mosque, again in Safad, as an election headquarters for the Kadima party where party members have installed a sign in Hebrew on the western side of the mosque claiming that this building was 'formerly used as a nightclub'.

Such incidences, we would argue, also tally with a comprehensive report issued by the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA, member of the coalition of human rights organisations alongside Habitat International Coalition, Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network and Ittijah) in December 2004 entitled Sanctity Denied: the Destruction and Abuse of Muslim and Christian Holy Places in Israel . The said report highlighted many instances of desecration of, and attacks on, Muslim and Christian places of worship that are rarely reported in the Israeli media or investigated by the police. Amongst the examples also provided by the report was the arson in March 2004 of the Forty Mosque in Beit She'an and the attempted arson of al-Omery Mosque in Tiberias in June 2004. In fact, different studies suggest that at least 250 places of worship have been to date affected by such policies. It is quite clear to both of us that those attacks against the sacred and religious shrines of the Palestinian minority in Israel are part of a systemic violation of the human rights of its citizens. Wakf (religiously endowed) buildings that were expropriated in 1948, or in later years, have been at times used as nightclubs, political offices, even as stables for sheep.

Moreover, and overlapping such practices, the policies of racism and incitement that are pursued by Israel, or allowed to flourish in the country against the Palestinian minority, have at times found their homepage in the dastardly acts that have been perpetrated against such sanctuaries. Such racism and incitement, including those by some officials who hold office, whether knowingly or otherwise make those attacks inevitable since they seem to give the green light to them. It does not take much to mould public opinion, and any statement that reeks of incitement, provocation or polarisation, would ultimately encourage some elements within society to resort to aggression.

We contend that it is the responsibility of government in such circumstances to defuse any ultra-nationalist discourse that might serve narrow political agendas and to shy away from all policies that discriminate against one group of people. The incident in the Basilica in Nazareth constitutes a cycle of violations against the sanctity of Christian and Muslim holy shrines. But the purpose of our joint paper today is not solely to underscore a small number of reported incidents and then condemn them. This is important, no doubt, and the duty of many organs of state as much as non-governmental organisations, but it is equally essential to focus on the policies themselves that are encouraging such attacks to occur and the deleterious effects they are having - both collectively and individually - on the whole Palestinian minority. Given that minority groups enjoy rights under International law, Israel has a clear duty to adhere to them in the case of its own Palestinian minority. After all, it is a party that undertook to assume its legal obligations when it signed and ratified both the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) despite entering reservations to Articles 22 and 23 respectively.

So what is happening in Israel today?

In our joint opinion, one outcome of those statements made by Israeli officials regarding the latest incident in Nazareth is symptomatic of the attempts by Jewish officials to underplay the presence of a Palestinian national minority in Israel. Yet, with a population of approximately 20%, it is important for our readers to appreciate that Israeli attempts for a monochromatic Jewish-only policy within the recognised borders of Israel today is breeding a charged atmosphere of hatred, incitement and racism that militates against the rule of law and leads to indiscriminate attacks against the Palestinian minority within the country. In the incident against the Basilica, for instance, Israeli officials - including Government ministers - drew a sharp distinction between the local Christian population, with its indigenous hierarchy and churches on the one hand, and the churches, institutions or bodies outside Israel. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called Monsignor Giovanni Lajolo at the Secretariat of State in the Vatican and informed him that Israel was making every effort to handle the events at the Basilica of the Annunciation, whilst assuring him also that Israel "will do our all to protect the holy sites of all faiths". Further on the political spectrum, Israel's President Moshe Katsav condemned the attack and stressed that Israel pledges to unconditionally defend the holy sites of all religions. Yet, his statement neither defined who would defend the actual worshippers who render those sites holy, nor undertook the same pledge with the local church leadership. Earlier on, Police Security Minister Gideon Ezra had accused Arab Members of Parliament - who had expressed their concerns about the safety of the Palestinian minority in Israel following this incident - of trying "to exploit for electoral purposes" the incident. He also added that the attack had international implications and it should therefore be made clear that the incident was carried out due to personal distress of people who probably did not grasp the meaning of their actions. But we wonder as to why such attacks - irrespective of their nature - are not infrequently attributed to deranged persons, 'oddballs' and unhinged perpetrators?

When Israeli ministers exercise [appropriately so, in our views] their efforts to mollify the Vatican in an incident such as this one, they are nonetheless overlooking the reality that the church is not just a masonry of stones but represents a house of worship for a living community of worshippers - the living stones in St Peter's First Epistle - whose lives and livelihoods are tied inextricably to their religious and national heritages. In that sense, to bypass or ignore those local communities and appeal instead to a worldwide body is also a political attempt to diminish - and ipso facto marginalise - the importance of those local believers within Israel itself. After all, it was not the Vatican, but the Christian and Muslim men and women in Israel, who sprang to the defence of the church on 3 rd March.

In our opinion, the issue is therefore not so much about protecting holy places per se since they are after all buildings of historical and spiritual value, but equally about affirming the rights of the members of those holy places who are the living testimony to the outreach, history, heritage and richness of the Palestinian minority in Israel. They are the living icons , and defacing them would in fact deconsecrate faith itself and place those icons under increasing threat.

Finally, what this latest episode also suggests is that those holy places of worship - whether they are teeming with the faithful, or have been appropriated or converted over the years - need protection. It seems to us untenable when one side whose policies of discrimination even indirectly contribute to the perpetration of such incidents could also become the protector of those sites. In European legal parlance, the question one would ask is whether it is not paradoxical to be 'judge and jury' on the same case and at the same time. Would it not therefore be necessary to envisage the possibility of some international protection for those places of worship so that they do not become marked, overlooked and sidestepped for spurious political, ideological or religious reasons?

As far back as 1946, John Ezikudo wrote in Faith and Faithful that the meter of any critical situation could best be gauged by the response of the ordinary citizens on the ground. This method is the equivalent of a modern-day vox pop that mirrors the realities of ordinary men and women at any one moment, and can therefore serve as a yardstick for the future. By applying this method, we believe that the very reaction of the Palestinians to the incident in Nazareth earlier this month is a testimony of their readiness to safeguard their rights in an ever-decreasing pool of support.

The challenges ahead are quite daunting. We need to combat all forms of incitement or racism - regardless of source, origin and nature - that create conditions conducive to further attacks. For instance, any pronouncements by Jews to transfer Palestinians from their towns, or 'cleaning' Jewish towns from any Arab presence (as seen occasionally in graffiti on buildings in Israel and the occupied territories) foment further those racist elements and provide a cloak of legitimacy for any attrition against Arabs and for the delegitimisation of the Palestinian minority in Israel.

Today, we all must make a choice. Do we overlook those incidents and hope that they will pass away with a measure of forgiveness and compassion? Or do we not allow those icons under imminent threat to be spoliated and disfigured further by our indifference? Could we, and in fact would we, be willing to act? The nature of our answer - as institutions and individuals alike - might well arrest the decline in the rights of the Palestinian minority and help re-shape its future.

When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters that represent danger and opportunity. Are we therefore willing to take the first step of transforming this latest crisis into another opportunity by putting our efforts where our mouths are - or would we rather hide behind our platitudes, innuendoes, fudge and circumlocution?

* Ms Reem Mazzawi is a licensed lawyer of the Israeli Bar and currently candidate for a Masters (LL.M) in Public Law at Tel Aviv University. She is also Project Coordinator for the Coalition of Women for Peace in Israel, and recently joined the International Council of Minority Rights Group International (UK).

From 2003 till 2005, she was legal advisor for the Social and Economic Unit of the Mossawa Center - The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel. She was also a Minority Fellow at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights between March and June 2005. In 2004, she published The Arab population in Israel: Between Ignorance and Marginalisation .

* Dr Harry Hagopian is an International lawyer, with a Doctorate (LL.D) in Public International Law and a Masters (LL.M) in International Conflict Resolution.

He is Member of the Middle East Forum of Churches Together in Britain & Ireland as well as ad hoc Middle East Consultant to Minority Rights Group International (UK), Coordinator of the Holy Land Ecumenical Foundation, Member of the pan-European Newropeans political movement and Fellow at Sorbonne III University in Paris. His website could be accessed on .

A former legal consultant over Jerusalem during the Camp David negotiations, he has written & lectured extensively about the Middle East, including his booklet The Armenian Church in the Holy Land . During the period 1996-2001, he was also Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches in Jerusalem and Convenor of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   21 March


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