Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Welcome to Nazareth

Until a few years ago, the only road northwards from central Israel to Nazareth rose from the fertile fields of the Jezreel Valley to wend its way steeply up the craggy face of a hill in the Lower Galilee range, following what must have once been a goat-herders’ path.

The crawl upwards—often behind a tourist coach or a truck—provided plenty of time to admire a dramatic outcrop of rock known as Mount Precipice, the spot where, according to Christian tradition, the townsfolk of ancient Nazareth tried to hurl a young Jesus to his death after he proclaimed himself the son of God. Locals refer to the place in Arabic as “Jebel Kufze," or “Jumping Hill,” alluding to what was possibly Jesus’ first miracle. He is said to have leapt to safety as he was pushed over the precipice.

For millenia, Jebel Kufze hid a secret. At its foot, close to where Jesus might have been dashed on the rocks had he not “jumped,” a cave was discovered by Franciscan monks in the 1960s. Excavations over the next decade identified human remains dating back possibly 100,000 years. At the time, so-called Kufze Man was our oldest ancestor ever unearthed.

But even Jebel Kufze, so rich in human and sacred significance, had no defense against the needs of a modern state, especially one whose officials have little or no sympathy with Christianity. Shortly after I moved to Nazareth in 2001, bulldozers and diggers moved in to tear out the lower southern flank of Mount Precipice, the deep scar eventually stopping just short of the Kufze Cave. A bridge on stilts was built up from the Jezreel Valley’s floor to what was left of the mount’s lower slope, and there engineers blasted a hole through the rock to create a tunnel.

The old “goat road” became a little-used scenic route to Nazareth. Meanwhile, the bridge and tunnel, which opened in 2008, needed a name. The list of candidates should have been long. It could have made reference to humankind’s forebears interred nearby; or to the miracle that averted the untimely death of a man in whose name a global religion was founded; or any of the subsequent Nazarenes who made a more limited mark on their city and the Galilee, such as Tawfik Ziyad, a mayor in the 1970s and 1980s whose “poetry of protest” still inspires Palestinians. But none were chosen.

Instead, government officials held discussions behind closed doors. The first we in Nazareth knew was when a sign appeared a short distance before the tunnel, naming the new route the “Rafael Eitan Bridge," after a famous general. Nazarenes were not consulted for good reason; their vehement opposition was assured.

The tenuous justification for the road’s name was that Eitan had been born in the Jezreel Valley, in a kibbutz (farming cooperative) called Tel Adashim. But Eitan’s fame derived not from his connection to the Lower Galilee or Nazareth, today the largest Arab city in Israel and the effective capital of the 1.4 million Palestinians who have citizenship inside the state.

He made his name first as a hawkish military chief of staff and then as a politician who was always ready to voice his visceral hatred of Palestinians and Arabs. In the early 1980s, he established a far-right party, Tzomet—an ideological forerunner of current foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party—and enthusiastically advocated settlement building. He is best known for stating: “When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.”

Outside observers have assumed that Eitan was offering a policy prescription for the occupied territories. However, Palestinians inside Israel, much better and longer acquainted with Zionist politics, understood this declaration to refer to Palestinians wherever they were found, including in the Galilee. On another occasion, Eitan outlined his party’s platform: “We declare openly that the Arabs have no right to settle on even one centimeter of Eretz Israel. …Force is all they do, or ever will, understand. We shall use the ultimate force until the Palestinians come crawling to us on all fours.”

There could have hardly been a more succinct exposition of the logic of a central plank of Zionist policy known as “Judaization.” Long before Israel began building settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, its strategic planners were devising similar methods to contain, fragment and control the dozens of Palestinian communities whose inhabitants had not been chased out of the new state in 1948. The goal was to turn these towns and villages into figurative “bottles” and transform their Palestinian inhabitants—a fifth of the population—into “drugged cockroaches,” who would docilely accept their inferior status in a self-proclaimed Jewish state.

Judaizing Nazareth

One of the very first targets for Judaization was Nazareth. The city, unlike most other Palestinian communities, had emerged relatively unscathed from the year-long bloodshed of the 1948 war. The newly declared state of Israel, still awaiting recognition from the United Nations, worried about a potential backlash from the international community, and especially the Vatican, if Nazareth were seriously attacked. So the city was left largely in peace as Israel’s armed forces swept northwards towards the Lebanese and Syrian borders. More