Israel’s Islamist movement’s successful campaign to establish a mosque beside the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth has been interpreted in many ways. For much of the western media, it was another Huntingtonian clash between a beleaguered Christendom and a rabidly intolerant Islam. For the Vatican (which owns the Basilica) and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, the campaign was the evil fruit of an Israeli policy to “foment divisions” between the city’s different faiths. For most “Nazarenes,” however, it was simply the latest development in a continuing power struggle between Israel’s shrinking Communist Party, long the main political voice of the Palestinians in Israel, and its leading contender: a resurgent political Islam.

Yet the deeper significance of the dispute between “church” and “mosque” in Nazareth can only be understood in the context of the progressive fragmentation of the Palestinians as a nation, a process perhaps more advanced among the Palestinians in Israel, but hardly limited to them.

The “Israeli Arab” Consensus

That the disintegration should reach its apogee in Nazareth is cruelly ironic. Ever since the Communists gained control of the municipal council in 1975, the city has been the de facto political capital of Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens. It was from Nazareth that tribunes like Tawfiq Zayyad and Emile Habibi forged the basic political consensus of this community. Initially abjured as “treasonous” by many Palestinians outside the 1948 borders, Nazareth’s consensus was eventually adopted by the Palestinian national movement as a whole. Palestinian political analyst Asad Ghanem explains its historical appeal:

The germ of the Communists’ success in the 1970s was that they appeared to resolve the crisis of the Palestinians’ political identity in Israel. On the one hand, they called for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. On the other, they called for political and civic equality for Arabs in Israel.

Present-day Nazareth marks the eclipse of that vision, says Ghanem. He cites both internal and external causes of the current interconfessional tensions. While astute at articulating a political consensus for Israel’s Palestinians, the Communists as a party were never representative of them. Disproportionately Christian, “westernized” and urban, Nazareth’s Communist leadership “didn’t exactly discriminate against the Muslim majority in the city,” says Ghanem, “it simply neglected them.” Safe in their “chairs,” the Communists failed to integrate Muslims into the leadership level, especially those cadres in the party drawn from Nazareth’s poorer, refugee [1] and overwhelmingly Muslim districts.

The political biography of the Communists’ ultimate nemesis in Nazareth, Islamist leader Salman Abu Ahmed, provides a good illustration. In the late 1970s, Abu Ahmed was a supporter of the Communist-led Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE). Unable to climb the party ladder in Nazareth, he switched allegiance to the Progressive List for Peace (PLP), led by Israeli Jewish peace activist Matti Peled and Haifa-based lawyer Mohammed Mi’ari. But Abu Ahmed received no better fare there for his ambitions. “Clearly, at a certain point Abu Ahmed concluded that he had no political future in either of these parties,” says Ghanem.

He soon spied one — courtesy of the emerging Islamist trend in Israel. “Abu Ahmed is not particularly religious. He has simply invoked religious affiliation and exploited Muslim grievances in Nazareth to consolidate his political base,” observes Ghanem. There are probably thousands of Palestinians in Israel who joined the Islamist movement by the same route and for the same reasons.

External roots of the recent conflict centered on eventsin the occupied territories. The intifada, and then the Oslo process, first implicitly and then formally excluded Palestinians in Israel from any role in the Palestinian national movement. The Communists’ response to this was to foreground the issue of civic rights over that of national identity. The goal of Palestinians in Israel became equal citizenship forged in alliance with “progressive Jewish forces” and based on “universal values” rather than upon narrowly national or localized references. It was an ideological leap that left many Palestinians cool, including a number of the Communists’ erstwhile supporters.

In 1996, former Communist Azmi Bishara founded the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Contrary to the “citizenship” discourse promulgated by the Communists, Bishara asserted that achieving equality necessitated the Palestinians’ recovery of their Arab national identity. In the short term, this was to be strengthened through policies of “cultural autonomy” for the Palestinian minority in Israel. In the longer term, the goal was to transform Israel from a Zionist or ethnic Jewish state into a “state for all its citizens,” Arab and Jewish alike.

Bishara’s ideas resonated with certain disenfranchised Palestinian intellectuals, both in the occupied territories and abroad, but not within Israel. In November 1998, the NDA stood against the Communists for the municipal elections in Nazareth and failed to win a single seat. The NDA did, however, take enough votes away from the Communists to allow the Islamists — for the first time in the city’s political history — to gain a one-seat majority on the council. If Bishara has kept an unusually low profile during the Nazareth crisis, it is because of the poisonous relations that still obtain between his movement and the Communists.

Against what many Palestinians see as the “abstract” notion of citizenship proffered by the Communists and Bishara’s largely unreconstructed vision of Arab nationalism, the Islamists have posited a “warmer,” more intimate identity, says Ghanem. This privileges Palestinians’ religious affiliation as Muslims not only against the “Jewish” affiliation of”Israelis,” but also against a secularist “Arab” identification. This is perhaps why a common slippage among the Islamists is to equate secularism with Communism and perceive both as somehow bound up with Christianity. “In Nazareth,” comments Abu Ahmed, “the Communists are the Christians.”

The Israeli Islamist Consensus

Whoever its “other,” the Islamists’ assertion of a confessional identity for the Palestinians in Israel has proved a spectacular success. Two decades after its emergence, political Islam is by far the fastest growing movement among them, commanding the support of an estimated 25 percent of the Arab electorate and controlling several key political centers, notably the municipalities of Umm al-Fahm, Kafr Qassem and now Nazareth. This phenomenon has of course been facilitated by an Israeli state that has long preferred to deal with its Arab citizens in terms of the religions they espouse rather than the nation to which they belong.

Yet the Islamists have not been spared the fragmentation that also beset the Communists, though it has taken different forms. The most ideologically significant of these stems from the paradox of being an avowedly Islamist movement in a Zionist state. In the mid-1990s, the Islamists split precisely over how deep they should plough the furrow of this contradiction.

A “southern” wing — emanating from Kafr Qassem’s Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish — is now unequivocal about accepting Israel’s Jewish or “ethnic” character. Since 1996, it has approved participation in the Knesset elections, backing Abdelwahhab Darawsha’s United Arab List, the largest Arab party in the Israeli parliament. The “northern” wing — grouped around Umm al-Fahm mayor Sheikh Ra’id Salah — eschews participation, citing the ideological and theological dissonance caused by swearing allegiance to a Jewish state.

But whatever the dissension about being in the Knesset, both wings agreed to flow with the mainstream of Israeli political and civil society. This entailed a firm undertaking to keep the struggle for civic and religious rights “within the law” and to employ very different methods from those used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the occupied territories. The problem is that some of Israel’s younger Islamists are starting to cross the border, ideologically and militarily.

On August 30, 1999, two Israeli Orthodox Jews were murdered near Megiddo. Six days later two botched car bombs exploded in Haifa and Tiberias. The revelation that the perpetrators of all three acts were not Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, but Palestinian members of the Islamist movement from the Galilee, rang alarm bells. Israel moved swiftly to set up a new regime of surveillance over its home-grown Islamists, though the more draconian measures proposed by its police forces (such as banning Islamist publications) were wisely tempered by Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

But the Islamist movement, “north”and “south” alike, was shaken. Darwish denounced the culprits as “criminals,” while Salah asked plaintively what compels a man to “cover himself in explosives, press a button and injure others?” The short answer is the ultimate incompatibility of a movement that (in Salah’s words) aspires to square “our wish as Muslims to establish the Caliphate” and “our reality as a Muslim minority in Israel.” It is a balance that must eventually topple, predicts Ghanem:

It may be that only a few supporters of the Islamist movement were behind the bombings. But the fact that even these few see the armed struggle of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza as a legitimate model to prosecute their aims signals the end of both the Arab and the Islamist political consensus in Israel. It proclaims opposition not only to the peace process, but also to the struggle for political equality within the limits of Israeli law.

The Price of Confessionalism

It also reveals how deep the politics of confessionalism have run in Palestinian society in Israel. Lutfi Mash’our is editor of al-Sinnara, a weekly Arab newspaper based in Nazareth. As he surveys the Basilica’s white stone facade from his office, he wonders how a local squabble over half an acre of turf became a diplomatic incident about “Islam, the Vatican and I don’t know what.” For him, the Millennium celebrations were a rare opportunity not only to generate some much-needed cash for one of the poorest cities in Israel, but also to provide a platform to denounce Israel’s 51 years of discrimination against those one in five of its citizens who are Palestinian. “We blew it,” he laments.

The “we” refers to the national leadership, whether in Israel or the occupied territories or abroad. For if Nazareth has demonstrated one sobering fact, it is that there is no longer a nationalist figure or party possessing the authority to mediate a Palestinian solution to what was, in the end, a dispute between Palestinians. The Islamists joined forces first with Binyamin Netanyahu and then with Ben-Ami, while the Communists and Yasser Arafat lined up with the Vatican. Indeed, the various Palestinian parties seemed to be ready to ally with anyone rather than each other. “We are orphans,” concludes Mash’our.

It is natural for orphans to seek sanctuary, whether in the church or the mosque. And it is only to be expected that the mindset of the Israeli authorities would seek to shepherd its “non-Jewish” citizens into such abodes, whether through the wheeling-dealing of a Netanyahu or the gentler paternalism of a Ben-Ami. But whatever their motives, Nazareth now represents not the “capital of Arabs in Israel,” but rather a defeat for the vision of a unified (and unifying) Palestinian identity.

In 1998, Azmi Bishara warned prophetically that the Palestinians in Israel “cannot be a national minority without first being a nation. And, if we are not Palestinian Arabs, then we are Muslims, Druze and Christians. We are the unorganized groups of religious communities Israel has always wanted us to be.” Two years on, the fight between church and mosque in this Arab city of 50,000 Muslims and 22,000 Christians is testimony to how well the Israeli project has succeeded and how badly the nationalist project — including Bishara’s — has failed.

But Israel, too, should understand that while the politics of confessionalism reward those who seek to divide and rule, it can also exact a steep price. Mash’our totes up the grimmest of future invoices: “One week before the 1999 Easter clashes [when Muslims and Christians fought in Nazareth because of the mosque, leaving 40 injured], I told an advisor to Mr. Netanyahu that it would take very little for the people to burn down this town. I also told him that were Nazareth to become Beirut, the flames would reach Tel Aviv.”

The flames have already seared Tiberias, Megiddo and Haifa.


[1] The refugees are those Palestinians who sought refuge in Nazareth in the summer of 1948 following the Haganah’s willful destruction of their villages (Imjadal, Saffouriyya and Ma’loula, among others), and the subsequent appropriation of their lands.

How to cite this article:

Graham Usher "Seeking Sanctuary," Middle East Report 214 (Spring 2000).

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