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When a derogatory cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed can cause riots across the globe resulting in deaths and injuries, among other things, one must thank God that the primitive provocation created by a family of eccentrics at the Church of the Annunciation and involving firecrackers and small gas canisters ended with 26 people sustaining mild injuries and nothing worse.

The events of Friday night in Nazareth once more demonstrated the extreme flammability of the point of friction between religions and between rival nationalities. Nothing new here: human history has largely been shaped by religious wars, some of them over religion itself and some in which religion served as the excuse for political and territorial disputes. The irony is that at the dawn of the 21st century, after religion was ostensibly swept into a quiet corner from which it would no longer dictate international relations and the fates of states and peoples, it has returned as a major threat.

The Havivi family, in lighting a match in Nazareth that mobilized the police and made the entire country take notice, carried out an action that was well-thought out despite its weirdness: it chose a site that is very sacred to the Christian world in order to draw attention to its claims.

In this aspect the Havivis were following in the footsteps of Baruch Goldstein, who chose the Cave of the Patriarchs as the site for his massacre. Goldstein was preceded by Dennis Rohan, who chose Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque as the site for his arson plan; by the couple who threw a pig's head into a mosque in Jaffa; by the unknown individuals who recently scrawled derogatory graffiti near a Ramallah mosque, and by the Jewish zealots planning to damage or destroy the mosques on the Temple Mount. Religion is not only the opiate of the masses, it is also a stimulant, not to mention an inflammatory substance that can ignite conflagrations across the world.

Thanks to the intelligent reaction of the police and the responsible cooperation of church and municipal leaders in Nazareth, the incident ended relatively peacefully, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that it could easily have escalated into a full-scale tempest.

The victims of the provocation - the residents and leaders of Nazareth - viewed it as a planned assault on them. Even their more moderate leaders spoke about the incident as the result of a government policy to violate the rights of the country's Arab minority. The Jewish majority, on the other hand, saw the Havivis' behavior in the church as the act of a family down on its luck, if not mentally unstable, and motivated entirely by personal reasons that had nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The mutual prejudices that are at the root of any rivalry came to the fore once more on Friday night.

A few immediate lessons can be learned from the incident, such as the need for guards at the entrances to the sites that are important to the three major religions here or the need to cultivate the ties between police commanders and religious leaders and to agree on ways to handle similar crises in the future. Such suggestions look like slogans. When a religious site is chosen as the locus for protest or vengeance, the results are particularly difficult to control. For proof, we need only look at what happened after the recent explosion at the mosque in Karbala, Iraq.

Still, the government must take away one crucial lesson from the events in Nazareth: the deep sense of neglect and oppression felt by Israel's Arabs is fertile ground for expressions of hostility and frustration in times of crisis in general and in confrontations that play on religious nerves in particular. A government that is not committed to erasing discrimination and increasing the sense of citizenship felt by Israeli Arabs is hurting its ability to douse the flames fanned by religious friction. Recognition of this fact is particularly relevant at the dawning of an age in which Hamas is taking up the reins of power in the Palestinian Authority and thereby increasing the potential for religion-based confrontations between Jews and Arabs.