March 4, 2006

Thousands of Israeli Arabs protest church incident

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Thousands marched in protest through
the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth on Saturday after an Israeli
man, his Christian wife and their daughter set off firecrackers
in one of Christianity's holiest sites.

The incident on Friday at the Church of the Annunciation in
the city of Nazareth touched off brawls which media reports
said left a dozen police and a dozen civilians injured and
several police vehicles and an ambulance damaged.

The Church of the Annunciation is built above a sunken
grotto where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the angel
Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that she was to bear Jesus.

Police said the motives in Friday's incident were personal,
not political, but attacks on holy sites nearly always spark
tensions in Israel whose Arab minority has been targeted in the
past by extremists and often complains of discrimination.

"The Israeli Arab public is at the edge of its patience and
it is time for Israel's leaders to do something about it,"
Shawki Khatib, chairman of an Israeli Arab leadership
committee, told Israel Radio.

On orders from Israeli Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
to restore calm, police kept their distance as several thousand
Christian and Muslim clerics, lawmakers and laymen marched
through the center of Nazareth, some waving Palestinian flags.

The march dispersed without incident, but about 10 soccer
matches involving Arab players were postponed to avoid further

An Israeli court ordered the suspects in Friday's assault,
Haim Habibi, his daughter and his wife, Violet, a Christian,
held for 15 days for throwing firecrackers in the church as
they entered with a pram loaded with gas canisters.

National police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said the
suspects had "no connection to any political group, neither
right nor left-wing" but had financial troubles and a history
of involvement in disturbances.

The Habibi couple expressed remorse for their behavior,
their attorney, Pninat Yanai said.

"They feel very bad," she said.

Both told reporters at the court they had sought the return
of children who had been taken from their custody.

"I have nothing against Muslims or Christians. It is not
logical for me to do such a thing to them, on the contrary. The
only thing I want is to get my children back," Haim Habibi

Israeli Arabs are about 20 percent of Israel's population
and descended from families who stayed while hundreds of
thousands fled or were forced out during the 1948 war of the
Jewish state's founding.

Many sympathize with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and
occupied West Bank, but few have been involved in violence.

Last August a right-wing Israeli army deserter shot dead
four Israeli Arabs in an attack seen as an effort to spark
violence that could delay a Gaza pullout that same month.