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Mosque Demolition Goes Quietly, but Some Worry About Future Tensions

The bulldozers that began rumbling in Nazareth shortly before dawn on Tuesday put an end to one of the most bitter Jewish-Christian-Muslim struggles in Israel’s history.

Within seven hours, the foundations of the Shehab A-Din Mosque, built on the site of a relatively obscure nephew of the famous Islamic conqueror Saladin, were razed.

Dozens of people gathered near the site to protest the action, and 10 — including two of the city’s deputy mayors, one of whom heads the local Islamic Movement — were arrested.

In general, however, it was a muted reaction from the Islamic Movement, which had promised “a sea of blood” should the government dare to carry out the demolition.

Police were so concerned about the possibility of riots that they deployed 500 officers in the pre-dawn hours.

Police embargoed reports of the action until dawn Tuesday, hoping to avoid clashes with Muslim protestors.

“We did not even want the leaders of the Islamic Movement to know it was going to happen until it was too late. We did not want to give them a chance to organize,” a northern district police spokesman said.

When reactions did come, they were harsh.

“The new crusade of the Bush-Sharon axis of evil in the world is against Islam,” charged Abdulmalik Dehamshe, a fundamentalist legislator from the United Arab List. “It’s no wonder that on same day they demolish the foundations of the mosque in Nazareth, and announce visits on the” Temple Mount.

He was referring to reports early this week that Israeli police had again begun allowing Jews and other tourists to visit Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The Palestinian clerics who administer the site have refused to allow any non- Muslims to visit the mount — site of the Al-Aksa Mosque, but also the holiest site in Judaism — since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.

The Islamic Movement often tries to rouse its supporters with tales of imaginary Israeli plots to demolish the mosques on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

Representatives of Nazareth’s Islamic Trust, or Wakf; the Islamic Movement, and city officials decided to launch a strike Wednesday to protest the demolition. In addition, the Islamic Movement is planning a large rally Friday.

A letter from the Monitoring Committee of the Israeli Arab leadership, a group composed of Arab legislators, local council heads and prominent public figures, sent a letter to Islamic Movement officials, Israeli Arab political parties and Arab journalists calling the demolition a “ploy that reeks of political intentions.”

Monitoring Committee official Abed Inbitawi said the move is in line with the government’s allegedly unfair treatment of the Arab community, and “its manipulation of Nazareth in particular.”

He believes the decision was meant both to gain the sympathies of the Christian West and as a ploy to draw attention away from last week’s indictment of Islamic Movement leaders on charges of funneling money to Palestinian terrorist groups.

Six years ago, the Islamic Movement presented plans to build a 190-foot-high mosque next to and overshadowing Nazareth’s most famous attraction, the Basilica of the Annunciation, one of the holiest spots in Christianity. They took over the square next to the church, pitched a tent and declared the area a mosque.

Since then devotees of Shehab A-Din, as well as virtually anyone else the Islamic Movement could recruit, have kept up a continuous squatter presence at the site. Israel approved the project in 1999.

Analysts considered the project an Islamic Movement power play to drum up votes and disturb Nazareth’s precarious Christian-Muslim balance.

As the issue simmered, Muslims rioted against Christians in April 1999, injuring 30 people.

Various Israeli governments waffled on the issue for fear of antagonizing the Islamic Movement and opening themselves to charges of racism. The construction initially was approved, but a concerted lobbying campaign convinced authorities that building the mosque would only heighten tensions further.

The courts ultimately found that the construction was proceeding illegally without the proper permits, opening the way for the demolition.

Professor Rafael Israeli, a Hebrew University expert on Arab politics, was unsurprised by the relative quiet in Nazareth on Tuesday, noting that the leader of the movement’s northern branch, Sheik Ra’ed Salah, remains in prison in the terror aid case.

Salah “was the main person who inflamed the whole situation from the beginning,” Israeli said.

Yet Israeli, who has opposed the mosque project since the late 1990s, would not rule out a violent response at some point.

“This is another nasty point in what has been a steady but gradual deterioration of Muslim-Jewish relations for years,” he said.

Last March, after years of tussles over the mosque’s size, the government ordered the Islamic Movement to halt construction on the site. Part of the mosque lies on lands owned by the Wakf, while some is on municipal land.

Local Christians said the construction would have posed a direct threat to the Basilica of the Annunciation, and that the mosque would have obscured the view of the church from the city’s main drag.

The city now plans to turn the site into a municipal square. Still, the part of the mosque on Wakf land was not touched in Tuesday’s operation, according to Uzi Shamir, director general of the northern branch of the Housing Ministry. The ministry actually is planning to rehabilitate the drab shrine on that corner, even adding a new access to it once the city square is completed, Shamir said.

The Muslim population in Nazareth, once a Christian-dominated city, has soared in recent decades. Israeli officials and local Muslim leaders estimate that the city is now 70 percent Muslim, and that the percentage is rising.

Christians recently have said they are concerned for their safety, and fear a renewed outbreak of Muslim-Christian violence following the demolition.

Still, Christian leaders quietly rejoiced at the demolition. A wide spectrum of Christian groups had railed against construction of the mosque. Petitions, letter writing campaigns and direct diplomacy between foreign ambassadors and Israeli government officials, along with advice from the Shin Bet security agency, ultimately turned the government against the project.

According to one leader of a Christian lobbying group, who asked not to be named lest his associates in Nazareth be harmed, local Christians compared the rise of Islamic movements in the Middle East to the rise of the Nazi Party and the Community Party in Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

“The Israeli Islamic Movement has expressly stated that it wants to take over Israel eventually by subduing the population, gaining the majority either by demography or violence,” he said.

Local Christians, he added, don’t speak out because “they fear reprisals from various forces, especially the extremists.”

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