Israeli Arab leaders blame government for Nazareth church attack

By Jack Khoury


Adar 6, 5766

President Moshe Katsav condemned Saturday a Jewish family's attack on a major Catholic holy site the night before, urging religious leaders to not let the incident harm relations between Jews and Christians in Israel.

Katsav also said that Israel pledges to unconditionally defend the holy sites of all religions.

Leaders of the Arab sector in Israel met earlier Saturday in Nazareth with Catholic leaders to discuss Friday night's detonation of fireworks by in the northern city's Basilica of the Annunciation.

The Higher Israeli Arab Monitoring Committee read a statement calling on the Israeli government to "take full responsibility for the incident in the Church of the Annunciation, and to deal with forces considering attacks on holy sites, forces that developed against a backdrop of hatred and defiance of the Arab public."

Chairman of the Monitoring Committee, Shuweiki Hatib, said that that "Arab public cannot absorb such blows, and we warn the leaders of the state against another attempt at harming the Arab public."

Responding to police statements that mental illness motivated the attack, MK Ahmed Tibi (UAL-Ta'al) asked, "Why is it that when a Jewish extremist goes crazy, he burns a mosque or blows up a church? This is a sickness of racism and hatred of Arabs, Muslims and Christians alike."

Israeli police said the man involved in the attack, Haim Eliyahu Habibi, had mental problems and was not a religious extremist. Habibi's Christian wife and daughter helped him carry out the attack.

Hadash Chairman MK Mohammed Barakeh warned, "The issue is not who carried out yesterday's attack in Nazareth, but rather who is next in line. All of the these criminals are known to security officials, who bear the responsibility of arresting them and preventing further attacks on the Arab public."

Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin traveled with a party delegation to Nazareth on Saturday to meet with the Catholic leadership in Israel to discuss the incident. Beilin spoke on the phone with Nazareth Mayork Ramez Jiraisi, and praised him for his role in calming tensions.

Ismail Haniyeh, the designated Palestinian prime minister from the Islamic militant Hamas group, also held Israel responsible for the attack.

Haniyeh said that it is the result "of a hate culture which Israel is feeding its public against the Palestinians, and their Christian and Islamic holy places and believers."

Boulos Rececinto Marcuzzio, vicar of the Latin patriarch in Israel and a bishop in Nazareth, said Friday's attack and anti-Christian riots last year in the northern village of Ghajar were cause for concern. "What happened ... is strong enough to let us think that we have to ask for our legal protection here," he said Saturday.

In Ghajar, Druze villagers had burned down dozens of Christian-owned businesses after rumors spread that Christian youths disseminated naked pictures of Druse girls on the Internet. No evidence has been found to
substantiate the rumors, but villagers said they fueled longstanding tension in the divided village.

Ezra: Arab MKs trying to make electoral gain out of church attack
Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra on Friday accused Israeli Arab MKs of trying to make electoral gain out of the church attack.

Speaking at a press conference, Ezra said that the Arab MKS were trying "to exploit for electoral purposes" the incident.

Israeli Arab Knesset members responded angrily to the Friday evening attack. "Such an act is proof of the fact that radical right-wing and settler terror groups feel they are free to perform their crimes, both in the territories and in Israel, against the Arab population," said Hadash Chairman MK Mohammed Barakeh.

Balad Chairman MK Azmi Bishara condemned the attack and said the motivation appeared to have been religious or nationalistic. He called on police not to relate to the angry crowd as a hostile element.

Arab MKs also complained that Habibi had not been arrested in the past.

Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi said that Habibi was known to police and was suspected of wanting to carry out such an attack.

Ezra also said the attack had international implications and it should therefore be made clear that the incident was carried out due to personal distress of people who probably did not grasp the meaning of their actions.

Karadi said, however, that police was not responsible for limiting a suspect's movement, but the judicial system.

Earlier, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called her counterpart in the Vatican, Monsignor Lajolo, and told him Israel is making every effort to handle the events at the Basilica of the Annunciation.

"We will do our all to protect the holy sites of all faiths," Livni said.

Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz condemned the attack: "Any attempt to damage holy sites destroys the delicate relations between different faiths in Israel," he said.

Church officials: Suspect 'born, bred on racist views'
Latin Archbishop Michel Sabbah, the most senior Catholic figure in Israel, said the Vatican was following closely the events in Nazareth. Sabah said that the person who tried to perform the terrible deed was born and bred on racist views and wild incitement against Christians in particular and Arabs in general.

In a radio broadcast Sabah called on the angry crowd around the church to leave the area once they had expressed their protest.

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

Bishop Eliyas Shakur said "this is an evil attack on one of the holiest sites for Christianity, not just in Israel but in the entire world. I call on the country's leaders to act immediately in order to obstruct and arrest those who try to damage holy sites of both Christian and Muslim faiths."

"We ask the Israeli government if it is still willing and capable of taking care of its citizens and minorities or do its citizens need to look after themselves," he said.