A mayoral election held last month in Nazareth, the effective capital of Israel’s large Palestinian minority, has sent shockwaves through the city.
Ramez Jeraisi, the incumbent for the Communist-backed Democratic Front, was heavily defeated, ending the party’s near 40 years of continuous rule.
The result, however, marked more than a change of mayor. Despite efforts by the two candidates to focus on local policy, ugly undercurrents of sectarianism swirled around the campaign.
The defeated long-time mayor is Christian, while the winner, Ali Salam, Jeraisi’s deputy for many years before running as an independent, is Muslim.
Social media quickly became a battleground. Some of Salam’s supporters accused the Democratic Front under Jeraisi of becoming little more than a protector of Christian privilege, while Salam’s detractors accused him of riding a wave of Islamic chauvinism.
The fault lines in Nazareth are even more complex than for much of the rest of the Palestinian minority, which comprises a fifth of Israel’s population. Although the city has the largest concentration of Christians in Israel and serves thousands more in surrounding villages, it also has a two-thirds Muslim majority.
The rise in sectarian sentiment, most local analysts agree, can be understood only in the context of a wider political climate being fomented by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In recent months, the Israeli right have unveiled plans to create for the first time separate Christian and Muslim national identities, bestowing different rights on each group. Even more controversially, Netanyahu has personally backed a campaign to encourage Christians, but not Muslims, to serve in the Israeli army.
“Israel is making a renewed effort to fragment Palestinian society,” said Haneen Zoubi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, who ran for the post of Nazareth mayor in the first, inconclusive election in October.
“It understands that our Palestinian identity has strengthened over the past decade and is doing everything it can to weaken us as a community.”
Netanyahu has trumpeted an early success, claiming that the number of Christians volunteering to join the military, though still small, is rapidly rising.
According to Zoubi, Netanyahu is using the issue of army service as a way to quietly implement the policy of his far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose campaign slogan “No citizenship without loyalty” suggested that the minority’s citizenship should be conditional.
“Netanyahu is effectively creating a loyalty test – serving in the army – that is required only of Christians. The implication is that Muslims are, by definition, disloyal,” Zoubi said.
Some 80% of the Palestinian minority in Israel are Muslim, compared to just 10% who are Christian, with a similar proportion Druze.
Druze leaders were persuaded to agree to a draft of their community in the state’s early years. But both Muslim and Christian leaders have adamantly opposed conscription, arguing that they should not be expected to oppress their Palestinian kin in the occupied territories.
The current tensions in Nazareth, said Mohammed Zeidan, director of the local Human Rights Association, have their origin in events in the late 1990s, when the Israeli government backed plans to build a large mosque next to the city’s landmark church, the Basilica of the Annunciation.
Zeidan said it was no coincidence that government meddling, then as now, was presided over by Netanyahu. In his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu appointed two ministerial committees that approved the mosque plan, culminating in street fights between Christians and Muslims.
On this occasion, however, most Christian and Muslim leaders have hurried to try to extinguish the sectarian flames.
Riah Abu el-Assal, the former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem and a resident of Nazareth, said: “The government thinks it can set Christians and Muslims against each other but this time it won’t work.” He and several other prominent Christians backed Salam’s campaign for mayor.
Confounding his critics, Salam has sought to reassure Christians. One of his first measures last month was to declare as a citywide holiday for Annunciation Day – marked on March 25 by local Christians as the anniversary of the angel Gabriel’s supposed announcement to Mary that she was carrying the son of God.
Salam has also accepted a proposal from Abu el-Assal to rename a neighbourhood the “Virgin Mary Quarter”.
However, Nadim Nashef, director of Baladna, a Palestinian youth movement in Israel, feared that these moves would also serve to fuel religious differences. “We desperately need leaders who can rise above this kind of sectarian politics,” he said.
In late February the Knesset passed the first law that explicitly distinguishes between the rights of Christian Palestinians and their Muslim compatriots in Israel. It provides Christians with separate representation in the national employment advisory council.
Although a minor measure in itself, the law is seen by its authors as a prelude to much more significant legislation separating the two religious communities.
Yariv Levin, who drafted the law and is a leading member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, has said the next bill will create an official Christian “nationality”, separate from the traditional Arab one Israel has ascribed to both religious groups.
Levin has made no secret of his motives. In a recent interview, he said the new law was meant to “connect us [the Jewish majority] and the Christians”, adding: “They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within.”
Nashef said the Israeli right wing had seen a chance, in the wake of the regional turmoil created by the Arab Spring, to exploit Christian fears of their vulnerability as a religious minority.
Such fears have persuaded a small number of Christians that they would be better off throwing in their lot with the Jewish majority, said Basel Ghattas, a Palestinian Christian Knesset member.
Netanyahu has been emboldened in his efforts to recruit Christians to the military since winning backing from a prominent Nazareth priest.
Jibril Nadaf, from the Greek Orthodox community, the largest Christian denomination in Israel, has become spiritual leader to a newly established Forum for Christian Recruitment, led by a handful of Christian families that have a tradition of volunteering for the military.
Shadi Halul, a lieutenant in the Israeli paratrooper reserves and spokesman for the forum, said: “We are part of Israel and it is important that we keep our country strong, especially when our brothers are being persecuted and slaughtered only a short distance away [in Syria].”
Halul added that Christian leaders in Israel had lived too long in fear of Muslims. It was time for Christians to “live freely, rediscover our identity and history, and be able to a teach Aramaic”, the ancient language of the region, in a school system separate from Muslims.
The forum has found allies in Im Tirtzu, a Jewish youth organisation that was recently described by a district court judge as having “fascistic” elements.
Im Tirtzu has been reticent to divulge its funding sources. But investigations by the Israeli media reveal that in the past it has received substantial sums from a Christian Zionist organisation in the United States, as well as from a close political ally of Netanyahu’s.
Azmi Hakim, the outgoing head of Nazareth’s Orthodox Council, the political leadership of the Greek Orthodox community, said that Nadaf and his movement did not represent a meaningful trend. He noted that only “a few dozen” attended a demonstration last month outside the European Union embassy in Tel Aviv appealing for European intervention in the region to help Christians.
“The government wants to build up this group to make them look important,” he said. “The danger is that we as a community believe the spin and relations between Christians and Muslims deteriorate as a result.”
Ghattas wrote to the Pope in February urging him to help end what he called Israel’s “divide-and-conquer policy” during his scheduled visit to Israel next month.
He said: “Israel wants to use army service to undermine the unity of our community and create strife.”
Such fears were heightened by a special Christmas message from Netanyahu in which, according to some observers, he appeared to favour the formation of a Christian militia. He said the forum would “grant protection to supporters of enlistment and to the conscripts themselves from threats and violence directed at them.”
Netanyahu added that anyone acting against the enlistment drive would be “severely judged”.
Hakim said he had been called in for an interrogation by the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence service, after publicly criticising Nadaf. Hakim is due in court in May after Nadaf launched legal proceedings against him for defamation and harassment. Hakim said he and the council were each facing demands for $170,000 damages.
Haneen Zoubi, the Knesset member, ascribed Jeraisi’s defeat to a failure by the Democratic Front to modernise Nazareth over the past 20 years. “It was easier for some in the party to run a negative campaign and spread scare stories. Now with Ali Salam as mayor, there is a chance to demonstrate that those fears are illusionary.” More