Israelis attack Christian shrine

I know some of you out there think “Islam is the problem.” But stupidity, it appears, is an equal-opportunity employer. From AP, March 2:

NAZARETH, Israel, March 3 – A distraught Israeli couple entered one of Christianity’s holiest sites on Friday and set off a series of small explosions, witnesses said, sparking a large riot that left six people wounded in this Arab town in northern Israel…

Police said the couple, joined by a young female accomplice, were disguised as Christian pilgrims when they entered the Basilica of the Annunciation and set off firecrackers and other small explosives. Church officials said the site was unguarded, and witnesses said the explosives were hidden in a baby stroller.

A witness who identified herself only by her first name, Rouan, said the church was crowded with worshippers praying for the coming Easter holiday.

“We heard a boom. It went on for six or seven minutes,” said the 22-year-old woman. “I thought we were going to die.” She said the blast left black spots on the walls inside, but witnesses said there was no serious damage.

Within minutes, thousands of people began rioting outside, preventing police from entering. The attackers remained barricaded inside for several hours before police broke through the crowd and took them into custody.

The attackers were disguised in police uniforms as they were led away, officials said. They were taken to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, officials said.

During the riot, protesters attacked an Israeli ambulance, breaking its windows and forcing it to turn away. A police car also was set ablaze.

Hundreds of police, including elite commando units, rushed to the scene to bring the riot under control. Six people, including several officers, were injured, medical officials said.

By late Friday, the riot had stopped, though the situation remained tense. Hundreds of young men milled about, as small bonfires set inside garbage bins crackled and the acrid smell of tear gas blanketed the air. An Israeli helicopter hovered overhead.

Police said the couple involved in the attack had been treated for psychiatric problems in the past. Police said the couple had previously threatened to attack churches, and also spent time in the Palestinian territories, including a visit to the late Yasser Arafat’s headquarters.

The officials said authorities had questioned the Jerusalem couple this week and threatened to place their children in foster care. There was no information on their accomplice, but the Haaretz daily said it was their daughter. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Israeli Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra said the attack did not appear to have nationalist motivations. He said the husband is Jewish and the wife is Christian.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni contacted the Vatican late Friday, offering assurances that Israel is committed to protecting Christian holy places, officials said. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also discussed the situation with Nazareth’s mayor, Olmert’s office said.

Different rewrites of this AP account seem to be all that’s available on this story at the moment, and it is a confusing account. Were the attackers disguised as Christian pilgrims or as police? Or did they switch disguises in the middle of the attack? This seems pretty elaborate if they had no “nationalist motivations” and were simply nuts. Were the arresting officers Israeli or Palestinian? Were the protesters Christians or Muslims, or both?

See our last post on Israel/Palestine.

    1. Politics
      There may not have been political motives (narrowly defined), but there will certainly be political consequences. Reports Haartez:

      Ezra: Arab MKs seek electoral gain out of Nazareth attack

      Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra on Friday accused Israeli Arab MKs of trying to make electoral gain out of an attack by a Jewish man who detonated fireworks inside a major Christian church in the northern city of Nazareth on Friday evening.

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

      Haim Eliyahu Havivi and his Christian wife and daughter detonated fireworks inside the Basilica of the Annunciation triggering riots that led to the wounding of five police officers. Havivi, 44, of Jerusalem, had been questioned by police in the past after he expressed intentions to attack churches in Israel.

      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 Havivi had not been arrested in the past.

      Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi said that Havivi 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 Sabah, 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.

      1. Unfortunate reaction
        This is a shame – much as I support Palestinian rights, I don’t like to see this kind of demagogic rhetoric, which is bound to backfire in the longer-term. It’s clear that the guy had his own motivations, which were not based on nationalist or religious extremism. He did the same stunt in the Church of the Nativity back in 2003, and before that he sought asylum with the Palestinian Authority. He also has a Polish Christian wife – hardly a Kahanist profile! Perhaps his case can tell us something about the problems faced by Israeli immigrants married to non-Jews, though – although even there I’d be cautious to draw inferences.

        I did a bit of digging: