JERUSALEM, March 5 (JTA) It only takes a few loose screws to throw Israel’s delicate interracial mechanism out of whack. After years of claiming they were abused by the country’s social services, an impoverished and eccentric Israeli family took welfare protests to a new level last Friday by staging an attack on one of Christianity’s holiest sites. Haim Eliahu Havivi and his Christian wife, Violette, accompanied by their daughter Odelia, 20, entered the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, pushing a baby stroller that they had loaded with firecrackers and gas canisters. No one was seriously hurt in the ensuing pyrotechnic display, but it sent shockwaves through the mostly Arab city, whose residents have been wary of Jewish violence since an off-duty soldier went on a shooting spree last year, according to a church clergyman. “The worshipers thought it was a terrorist attack and scattered,” Father John Muscat said. Before the truth could be determined, thousands of angry locals converged on the shrine, as did scores of riot police. The would-be lynch mob was beaten back, and several of its ringleaders were injured. A police patrol car was torched. Throughout, a lightly injured Havivi and his family remained under guard in the grotto until they could be spirited away to a safe lock-up, disguised as policemen. “I have nothing against Christians,” Havivi, 43, told investigators. Indeed, his wife is a Christian, a fact that, for many of Israel’s Arab citizens, should have taken some of the sting out of the incident. So should the fact that the couple had for years mounted spectacular demonstrations in a bid to recover three children they said had been unfairly taken into state custody. But on Saturday, several thousand took part in a protest march in Nazareth that was led by Israeli Arab lawmakers. Ahmed Tibi of the Islamic Arabic Union called the church attack part of the “sickness and insanity that affects the far-right in the country and leads it to attack Arabs.” Some in Israel sensed a cynical attempt by Israeli Arab parties to shore up voter support ahead of the March 28 election. Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert condemned the Havivis’ actions, but pointed out that they did not reflect on the state. “The State of Israel, since its founding, has scrupulously upheld freedom of worship and freedom of religion and full tolerance toward the institutions of the religions active in the country,” he told fellow Cabinet members Sunday. “We are in a delicate period in which there is always the temptation to exploit events of this sort for purposes that are not relevant.” That did not stop Olmert’s election rival, Labor leader Amir Peretz, from making a visit to Nazareth. “The Middle East is a most complex region, in which just a match is enough to set off a huge conflagration,” he said. “Even if in this case we are talking about a family of crazies, they must be subject to severe penalties in order to pass a message that no madman carries out his madness on a sacred place.” The Havivis have been remanded for two weeks while prosecutors decide on charges.
Tempers flare over church firecrackers