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Thousands of Israeli Arabs protest church incident

Written by: Staff
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JERUSALEM, Mar 4 (Reuters) Thousands marched in protest through the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth today after an Israeli man, his Christian wife and their daughter set off firecrackers in one of Christianity's holiest sites.

The yesterday incident 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 yesterday'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 centre of Nazareth, some waving Palestinian flags.

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

An Israeli court ordered the suspects in yesterday'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 behaviour, 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 said.

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 sympathise 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.

REUTERS DH RAI0231

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