They are Israel’s Siamese twin cities, forced into an uncomfortable pairing more than half a century ago. Nazareth and Natzrat Illit, or Upper Nazareth in English, almost share a name. Although formally separated by a ring road, Israel has tied their fates together. Each is engaged in a battle with the other, from which, it seems, given the zero-sum terms of the Zionist project, only one can emerge as victor — and survivor.

Outside Israel, few have heard of Upper Nazareth. But for millions of Christians, Nazareth is identified with one of the most important stories of the New Testament: the Annunciation, the moment when the Angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was carrying the son of God in her womb. Nazareth is where Jesus is said to have spent most of his life. Each year, its churches attract hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors, mostly Christian pilgrims.

Nazareth also enjoys a doubly unique status among the 1.4 million-strong Palestinian minority in Israel. It is the only Palestinian city to have survived the nakba, the great dispossession of 1948, with most of its inhabitants in situ. And, though today a majority of its 80,000 residents are Muslim — many of them descended from refugees who sought sanctuary in the city from those same events — Nazareth is still home to the largest Christian Palestinian community in the country.

A 2012 survey showed that, of the 125,000 Palestinian Christians in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem, about a fifth were to be found in Nazareth — nearly twice the number living in any other community. Christians comprise slightly less than 2 percent of Israel’s population, down from 8 percent of Palestine’s population in 1946, under the British Mandate.

The need for Upper Nazareth — Illit in Hebrew means both “above” and “superior” — was born of a last-minute failure of nerve by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. The inhabitants of hundreds of Palestinian communities were expelled or fled during the nakba. But when the Israeli army massed against Nazareth in mid-July 1948, Ben-Gurion stayed the hand of his commanders, fearful that the flight of local Christians and Israel’s takeover of the holy sites would incur the wrath of the Vatican and alienate his key international allies. Instead, Nazareth was allowed to surrender.

A few years later, in 1956, Ben-Gurion ordered construction of Upper Nazareth’s first neighborhoods after vast swathes of Nazareth’s farmland had been confiscated in the “public interest.” Upper Nazareth was the flagship of the Judaization of the Galilee program, establishing the blueprint for the later settlement project in the Occupied Territories. Its role was to corral its Palestinian neighbor to prevent it from realizing its potential as the political and cultural capital of the Palestinians inside Israel.

Upper Nazareth was supposed to diminish Nazareth in several ways. After 1948, Nazareth was surrounded by seven surviving Palestinian villages. Without the state’s intervention, it would have merged with them, becoming the core of a conurbation today comprising a quarter-million inhabitants. Aerial views of Upper Nazareth show how its land-hungry tentacles of housing estates and industrial zones served to isolate Nazareth and separate it from its hinterland.

Under British rule, Nazareth had been the administrative capital of the Galilee, home to government offices and local courts. But these services were soon relocated to the new Jewish city. Extensive industrial zones were created there, as was a shopping mall to serve both communities. Upper Nazareth, unlike Nazareth, was even made a tourism priority zone, encouraging the building of the first chain hotel in either city (Nazareth would have to wait until the 1990s for an upgrade in status). The transparent goal was to starve Nazareth of funds, redirecting resources to its Jewish twin.

Upper Nazareth’s first homes and its administrative buildings, including the municipality, were located on a bluff above Nazareth. Just as with the settlements of the West Bank, its role was to stand watch over the Palestinian community below. Doubtless the choice of site was partly an act of psychological warfare, intended to convey a sense of Upper Nazareth’s superiority and invulnerability. But it also allowed Israeli officials to monitor developments in Nazareth, reporting violations of repressive and discriminatory planning rules designed to limit the Palestinian city’s growth.

In the state’s early years, a military governor of the Galilee, Col. Mikhael Mikhael, confided that the rationale for establishing Upper Nazareth was to “swallow up” Nazareth and transfer “the center of gravity of life” to the Jewish city. [1] The Biblical city’s fate was supposed to align with that of other post-1948 Palestinian cities: Labeled “mixed cities,” they were in truth Judaized cities with a ghetto-like suburb of deprived Palestinians attached.

Struggles of Judaization

More than five decades on, Upper Nazareth has clearly failed to achieve its goals; its Palestinian twin enjoys too many historical privileges to be easily defeated.

True, Upper Nazareth drastically limited Nazareth’s room for expansion, forcing hundreds of families to build houses illegally and live with the consequent fines and threat of home demolition. Meanwhile, Israel successfully starved Nazareth of the economic benefits rightfully due it from tourism: Most visitors, shipped in on buses, spend less than an hour wandering its main church before being shepherded on to the many hotels and restaurants in the nearby Jewish city of Tiberias.

But Nazareth enjoyed the fruits of its other Christian institutions, ensuring its emergence as the Palestinian economic hub of the Galilee. Three hospitals, founded by religious charities more than a century ago, mean that patients from across the region head to Nazareth for treatment. More importantly, Nazareth’s success has been underpinned by a dozen private schools, set up by religious orders before Israel’s creation. Catering to Christian and Muslim pupils, these schools bypass the hugely disadvantaged and intellectually restrictive separate education system for Palestinian children, and are largely responsible for the emergence of Nazareth’s middle class. They educate the doctors and nurses, lawyers, hi-tech engineers and entrepreneurs who populate the city and have thrived in the face of state-sponsored adversity.

By contrast, Upper Nazareth, despite being endlessly pampered, has struggled in its Judaization mission. Rather than becoming the Galilee’s metropolis, it still counts a population of no more than 55,000, a majority of them recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union directed to the city by Zionist agencies. These immigrants soon understand that they have been deposited in the “periphery,” next to Israel’s largest concentration of Palestinians, who, in Israeli culture, stand for all that is alien, primitive and menacing. Once acculturated, these immigrants seek to move south toward Tel Aviv and its sprawling suburbs. Since the late 1990s, no new sources of immigration have emerged to replace them.

The gradual exodus from Upper Nazareth, combined with Nazareth’s growing middle class and stifling overcrowding, has created a unique problem for the Judaization program. Rather than swallowing Nazareth, Upper Nazareth is being slowly swallowed by its Palestinian neighbor. Wealthy Nazarenes, often Christians unable to build a home in their city legally, are paying above-market prices to buy the homes of Upper Nazareth’s departing Jews.

“Code 20”

Since 2005, the Israeli government has quietly classified Upper Nazareth under “code 20,” the designation for an ethnically mixed city. [2] Its mayor, Shimon Gapso, a far-right ally of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has conceded that his city is only 82 percent Jewish; others suggest that as many as one in four residents may now be Palestinian.

The migration of Palestinians into Upper Nazareth has been underway for more than a decade now. Gapso was elected four years ago on an unashamedly anti-Arab platform, including a plan — later abandoned after legal advice — to set up a municipal fund to buy “Jewish homes” to prevent their “takeover” by Palestinian buyers.

In the spring of 2013, as Upper Nazareth heads toward a local election in November, he has set about erecting a dozen outsize Israeli flags at every road intersection between the two cities. Nazareth residents understand the message: “Keep out!”

Late in 2012, after Nazareth staged a protest against Israel’s attack on Gaza, Operation Pillar of Cloud, Gapso made headlines calling the city “a nest of terror” and demanding that the government declare it “a city hostile to the state of Israel.” Ideally, its residents should be expelled to Gaza, he added, but if that was not possible the government should instead cut off all funding. [3] State prosecutors rejected demands to investigate Gapso for racist incitement.

A rumor circulating in Nazareth holds that Gapso has become so unhinged in his hatred of his Palestinian neighbors that he assumed the display of flags would provoke attempts to burn them down, thereby proving his point about the threat posed by Nazareth to the state and his own city. He was to be disappointed.

More concretely, Gapso has repudiated the designation of his city as ethnically and religiously mixed. He has refused to allow a mosque or church to be built, or to allot a section of the municipal cemetery for non-Jews. In the winter of 2010 he went public with his ban on Christmas trees in public buildings, backed by the city’s rabbi, Isaiah Herzl, who said any such tree would be “offensive to Jewish eyes.” [4] His officials have also failed to implement a 2002 court ruling to erect road signs in Arabic as well as Hebrew, leading the Supreme Court in 2011 to hold the city in contempt.

The latest row concerns Gapso’s refusal to approve an Arabic-language school in Upper Nazareth. The city’s Palestinian children, now said to number nearly 2,000, are forced to scramble for places in Nazareth’s heavily oversubscribed private schools. When Israel’s largest human rights group, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, protested in January that Palestinian residents were entitled to equal educational provision, Gapso called the demand “a provocative nationalist statement.” [5] The Education Ministry has so far declined to intervene.

Unsettled State of Affairs

In May, Asher Levy, a resident of Upper Nazareth, staged a surreal political protest masquerading as performance art outside the city’s fortress-like municipal building. Captured, as is now inevitable, on YouTube, he drinks two liters of milk dyed Israeli flag-blue, as officials, including Gapso, are lured outside by the commotion.

At first, Gapso seems intent on befriending Levy, but after he is ignored, the mayor petulantly withdraws inside the building. The milk consumed, Levy reads out a pamphlet entitled “Upper Nazareth: A Jewish Identity Forever” sent by Gapso to the city’s residents in April, in time for Israel’s Independence Day. Intermittently, Levy vomits the blue milk into a bowl and down the front of his white T-shirt, recreating a debased Israeli flag on his chest.

Gapso’s pamphlet gives voice to his racist paranoia. “No more shutting of the eyes, no more nostalgic clinging to the law that allows each and every citizen to live where he or she desires. This is the time to guard our home!… All requests for foreign characteristics in the city are refused.… We have placed Israeli flags in the entrances to the city so that people will know that Nazareth Illit is a Jewish city.”

Citing similar sentiments from Gapso, a January 20 Haaretz editorial castigated the mayor for his “benighted racist position.” But the newspaper, like Levy, misses the point. Gapso is simply following the Zionist imperative laid out by Ben-Gurion five decades ago to keep Upper Nazareth—like the Galilee—Jewish. Echoes of the city founders’ dogma can be heard in Gapso’s explanation to a disillusioned American funder: “Upper Nazareth was founded to Judaize the Galilee. That was its purpose and it remains so today.” [6]

Although the spotlight remains firmly on the mayor, it is clear he has the full backing of the Israeli government. In December 2012, Joseph Shapira, an ombudsman known as the state comptroller, who monitors state institutions and local authorities, issued a report on Upper Nazareth. He found that, unbeknownst to local council members, Gapso had been employing an extremist settler rabbi from Hebron, Hillel Horowitz, since May 2010 to advise him on “settlement affairs.” The post, paying $55,000 a year, plus a car and generous expenses, was never approved by the city treasurer, the legal adviser or council members; Gapso bypassed them all and agreed upon the job description in a secret deal with the Interior Ministry. [7]

Horowitz, along with Uri Ariel, a far-right Knesset member representing the settlers, has helped Gapso set up in the city the first hesder yeshiva, a religious seminary that combines Bible study with military service and is popular with the children of extremist settlers. Forty students have been recruited so far. In late 2010, Horowitz also moved 15 families evacuated from Gaza during the 2005 disengagement into an abandoned school building, in violation of planning laws and safety regulations.

The biggest project overseen by Horowitz, however, was arranged with the Housing Ministry. Tenders have been issued for a new neighborhood, comprising 3,000 homes, for the ultra-Orthodox, Jewish religious fundamentalists known as the Haredim.

Given the large size of Haredi families, typically with eight or more children, Gapso is hoping to swell the city’s population almost overnight by 60 percent, and correspondingly shrink the proportion of Palestinians in Upper Nazareth. In an April interview, Gapso said: “I am a secular Jew and yet I am interested in having ultra-Orthodox residents here. That’s the only way to reduce the percentage of the Arab population in the city to some 10 percent.” [8]

But as Mohammed Zeidan of the Nazareth-based Human Rights Association points out, the high birth rate among the Haredim will not only change demographics in relation to Palestinian residents; it will transform them for the existing, largely secular Jewish population, too. In a decade or two, Upper Nazareth will be a city with a dominant and rapidly growing religious majority.

Gapso cannot be unaware of the Haredim’s behavior in other cities where they predominate. In their neighborhoods in Jerusalem, for example, drivers risk being stoned if they use their cars during the Sabbath. The Haredim have also been prepared to use violence against women to enforce modesty rules and against shops accused of violating religious codes.

Palestinians in Nazareth are already imagining such scenarios in Upper Nazareth, and concluding — as Gapso presumably hoped they would — that the future is too uncertain to risk seeking a home there, even if the only other choice is an illegal home in Nazareth. The flow of migrants to Upper Nazareth may be about to be staunched. Meanwhile, the existing Palestinian population of Upper Nazareth, as well as its secular Jews, are wondering what is in store for them.

Gapso remains unrepentant. Noting that the Galilee is an area where a Jewish majority survives only precariously, he said: “In my eyes, the struggle for a Jewish majority in the Galilee is far more important than our presence in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. If we lose the battle here, we will lose it everywhere throughout the country.” [9]

In Gapso’s worst imaginings, Upper Nazareth may be celebrating — a generation hence — its first Christian mayor. And like the foolish homeowner struggling with an infestation of vermin, Gapso is set on burning down the house to rid himself of his problem.


[1] Geremy Forman, “Military Rule, Political Manipulation and Jewish Settlement: Israeli Mechanisms for Controlling Nazareth in the 1950s,” Journal of Israeli History 25/2 (September 2006), p. 350.
[2] Haaretz, August 8, 2008.
[3] Haaretz, November 21, 2012.
[4] Yuval Ben Ami, “How the Mayor (of a Nazareth Suburb) Stole Christmas,” +972, December 22, 2010.
[5] Haaretz, January 17, 2013.
[6] Haaretz, January 31, 2013.
[7] Haaretz, January 11, 2013.
[8] Daniel Ben Simon, “Mayor Plans to Limit Growth in Nazareth,” Al-Monitor, April 18, 2013.
[9] Ibid.

How to cite this article:

Jonathan Cook "Nazareth Dispatch," Middle East Report 267 (Summer 2013).

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