Nazareth quiet after attack in church sparks rioting

Agencies

Haaretz

Adar 4, 5766

A Jewish man accompanied by his Christian wife and their relative detonated firecrackers inside the Basilica of the Annunciation in the northern Israeli Arab city of Nazareth on Friday evening, triggering riots that resulted in the injury of 13 police officers and 13 local residents.

Around midnight, a tense calm prevailed in the city.

Police said the man had a history of mental illness. The assailants were not believed to be linked to any ultra-nationalist Jewish group.

Towards evening, the three assailants hid firecrackers and small gas canisters in a baby stroller and detonated the firecrackers inside the church during a special prayer for the opening of Lent.

The Jewish man and the two women entered the basilica compound disguised as Christian pilgrims. The male suspect was identified as 44-year-old Jerusalem resident Haim Eliyahu Havivi. Police had questioned him in the past after he threatened to attack churches in Israel. The two female suspects are Havivi's wife, who is Christian, and their young relative.

Jerusalem welfare services are also familiar with the couple, after their children were taken away from them.

Large police forces, including special riot-control units, were dispatched to the scene to repel thousands of people who gathered in an attempt to enter the compound and attack the suspects. Police used stun grenades to disperse the crowd. After being held up for more than three hours inside the church, police finally managed to extract the three. According to one report, the man was taken out disguised as a policeman.

Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said the attack did not appear to have nationalist motivations and that he had been in touch with local Christian leaders to calm the tensions. "It is very important to put out this small flame so that won't become a huge fire," he told Channel 10 TV.

A witness who identified herself only by her first name, Rouan, said the church was crowded with worshippers praying for the coming Easter holiday at the time of the attack. "We heard a boom. It went on for six or seven minutes," she said. "I thought we were going to die." She said the blast left black spots on the walls inside, but did not appear to cause any major damage.

Nazareth Mayor Ramez Juraisi and Deputy Mayor Ali Salaam also attempted to persuade the crowds to disperse.

Ezra said police efforts to extricate the three assailants were initially prevented by the large crowd. A Magen David Adom ambulance crew was also unable to leave the church due to the angry mob.

At one point, the crowd attacked an ambulance, smashing the vehicle's windows.

By 8:45 P.M., Police Major General Dan Ronen, commander of the northern district, said that the situation around the church had been brought under control. In the wake of the incident, police commissioner Moshe Karadi ordered security beefed up at holy sites around Israel.

By 9:10 P.M. officers had managed to extricate the three suspects and the paramedics from the church. Despite Ronen's announcement that the situation was under control, Nazareth residents set a police vehicle on fire around 9:15 P.M.

Wadiya Abu Nasser, Advisor to the Latin Archbishop, told Haaretz that a full report of the incident had been passed on to the Vatican and directly to the pope's office. Abu Nasser reported Vatican sources describing the incident as very serious.

Khalil Hadad, a journalist situated in the church, told Haaretz the structure was lightly damaged when a stampede broke out and worshippers attempted to flee after the firecrackers went off.

Channel 10 TV News reported the Shin Bet domestic security service said Havivi is known to have a history of mental illness. Havivi had attempted to attack churches in the past, notably the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Havivi had even made his way to the Ramallah headquarters of former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat several years ago, claiming that Israeli authorities were attempting to confiscate his daughter. At the time, Havivi told Arafat he wanted to remain in PA-controlled territory.

Israeli Arab MKs responded angrily to the attack and complained that Havivi had not been arrested after his past threats to attack churches.

The basilica is built at the site of the Annunciation, where according to Christian faith the Virgin Mary was told by archangel Gabriel she had been chosen by God to bear His son, Jesus.

Nazareth, the boyhood town of Jesus, is located in northern Israel. It is inhabited by Christian and Muslim Arabs, and religious tensions have boiled over in the past, with the two sides in a dispute over attempts to build a mosque next to the church.