After four years of paralysis, Nazareth has returned to itself. The scar of the October 2000 riots has yet to heal fully, but daily life has sidelined those events. On Saturday, thousands of tourists visited the city, cramming every site and restaurant. And yesterday, the city's official day of rest, pilgrims - from Nigeria, Korea, Poland and elsewhere - constantly flowed into the city, making their way to Sunday mass at the Church of the Annunciation, which was built over the place where Christians believe that the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary.
A medley of languages filled the air, to the residents' joy. This is a post-traumatic city, once again inhaling the scent of normalcy.
"What can I tell you," says a smiling Osama Taha Mohammed Ali, who runs a souvenir shop at the entrance to the church. "It warms the heart to see Israelis returning to the city. Even though they don't work with us and they don't buy my merchandise, it's fun to see them and to feel them. God willing, the bad days won't come back. I still remember that we had zero activity. ... We didn't sell a thing, even the smallest item."
Huge pictures of MKs Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara are displayed at the entrance to the city, next to bombastic statements - an indication of preparations for the impending elections. Both politicians are wearing serious facial expressions in the posters, perhaps for good reason: It seems that the rules of the game have changed in the Arab sector. What was is not necessarily what will be.
That's why Habiballah Mohammed feels a new wind blowing among his friends. In the past, they would automatically vote for parties and candidates based on their familial or ethnic affiliation. But "that nonsense is done with," says Mohammed on his way to Ein Mahel village, where he runs one of two bakeries (the second is in Nazareth).
"This time the Arabs will vote only for whoever gives them something they can see with their eyes. We've had enough of the promises, and we've had enough of the exercises of the Arab politicians, who are ready to do anything to hold onto their seats," he says.
The alienation has gotten so severe that if the Russian oligarch Arcady Gaydamak were to show up in Ein Mahel and promise to build a soccer field, he would win over thousands of youths - and maybe even their parents.
"This is the situation among the Arabs today," says Habiballah. "They feel today what the Jews felt in the past. Our slogan is like yours: `Corrupt ones, you have become repulsive!' Because our politicians only destroyed, and we want people who will help our children fulfill their dreams. Today they sit in the street after school and have nothing to do. That's why they head toward drugs and crime. We want different people, whether Jewish or Arab - the important thing is that they do good for people."
Nazareth has recently rid itself of a major problem that was likely to destroy the fragile relations between Muslims and Christians in the city. When the state was established, 70 percent of the city was Christian. Today the situation has reversed, and Muslims now constitute 70 percent of the population. The demographic revolution overwhelmed some of the Muslim clerics, who decided to build the Shihad al-Din Mosque at the feet of the Church of the Annunciation.
As typically happens in Israel, they established facts on the ground and got thousands of Muslims to come to Friday prayers. The minaret that was going to overshadow the cross threatened to incite the Christians in Nazareth and around the world.
The Vatican and the White House intervened, until in the end, the foundations of the controversial mosque were removed. A sigh of relief was felt in the city and the entire region. Christians and Muslims breathed more freely. Members of both religions had been concerned that an internal religious war would destroy their shared lives, as well as the city's economy.
"Now, thank God, everything's calm," says Anis Fahouri. He is called "the eyes of the church," since he oversees the access routes leading to the Church of the Annunciation.
Like Habiballah, Fahouri believes that Israeli Arabs are in the midst of changing their voting patterns.
"Once they thought that only Arab representatives could represent them," he says. "But they saw that their influence was limited. That's why there are a lot of voters who will vote for Amir Peretz and the Labor Party. Since he's a socialist, he supports the workers, and he's also not a liar. I, for example, am going to vote for him."
Fahouri rubbed his eyes at the sight of lines of pilgrims heading toward the basilica, where the patriarch had extended the prayer hours by four hours, until 9 P.M., due to the many visitors. Then Fahouri went back to discussing the elections.
"As I said, the Arab voter is no longer what he was," he says. "In the Arab sector, people are more open, more intelligent [than before]. You can't trick them anymore. The Kadima party had a major role in this revolution, and therefore will get a lot of Arab votes. Also because Shimon Peres is there. The policy of Sharon, may he be healthy, has transformed me into an optimistic person, and Olmert is also going in his direction, to his credit."
"People are looking for peace and quiet," says Fahouri. "Everyone has had enough of the bad times."