Reporter's notebookNasrallah is 'holding us hostage, and it’s infuriating'

Haifa Christians stage solemn Good Friday march in Hezbollah’s crosshairs

The threat of rockets has caused northern worshipers to alter their plans on a holiday weekend that they are nonetheless determined to observe

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Maronite Christians attend a Good Friday procession in Haifa on March 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Maronite Christians attend a Good Friday procession in Haifa on March 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Easter weekend is typically the highlight of the Da’abul family’s calendar. On the Christian holiday that marks Jesus’ resurrection, they take a road trip to his Galilee hometown of Nazareth, reconnect with their Maronite-Cathilic roots in the region, and enjoy its gorgeous springtime blossoms.

But not this year.

The war with Hamas in the south, and especially the exchanges of fire with Hezbollah that swiftly followed up north, made the family of four cancel their annual Easter trip and stay home Haifa, where they joined other Christians on one of the city’s two annual Good Friday processions.

Always solemn events, the Good Friday processions to commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion were especially muted this year with low turnout due to the war and the somber mood of the participants, who spoke of their desire for peace and prayed for the conflict to end.

“It’s a sad day during a sad time,” said Maya Da’abul, who took part in the Maronite procession with her husband Imad and two teenage children, Kamal and Larene. It began at Haifa’s majestic Saint Louis the King Cathedral Maronites Church. A larger procession took place simultaneously around the Elias Cathedral of the Melkite Catholic, which has a larger community but a smaller hall, lit by candlelight.

In Jerusalem, hundreds also marched, many singing hymns as they made their way slowly through the Old City along the Via Dolorosa, the cobblestone path where tradition says Jesus bore the cross to his crucifixion. The tourists and pilgrims who usually attend the Jerusalem procession were mostly absent, adding to the sense of isolation that Israelis of all faiths have been feeling for the past six months.

Maya Da’abul stands between her children Kamal and Larene and with her husband Imad in Haifa on March 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

On their Easter trips, the Da’abuls usually worship in Kafr Bir’im near the Lebanese border. Kafr Bir’im “is where our family comes from, before 1948,” Maya said, referencing the expulsion of the village’s population by Israel during the War of Independence.

The expulsion of Bir’im, whose residents did not participate in any meaningful way in hostilities against Jews, is a painful episode in the history of Jewish-Christian relations in the State of Israel. It was carried out amid promises that residents, members of the Middle Eastern stream of Catholicism known as Maronites, could return, and the families of the displaced have for decades lobbied to be allowed to reestablish the village.

Independently of any grievances they have against Israel, the Da’abuls loathe Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, which has launched thousands of rockets into Israel since October 7, killing about 20 people, including Arab Israelis.

“He’s holding us hostage, and it’s infuriating,” Maya said.

Economic and security fears

Also at the march, Hanna Afara, a 42-year-old father of three, speaks with quiet but seething anger about the war.

“My oldest, he’s 9, and he’s afraid to go out of his home after experiencing two warning sirens,” said Afara, who lives in an older building with no communal shelter. “We’re all suffering right now, and that’s kind of the feeling here at the procession too.”

Hanna Afara carries his youngest daughter in the Good Friday procession of his Maronite Catholic community in Haifa on March 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Afara and his family had planned to visit Tiberias and worship at the nearby Church of the Multiplication, which boasts a restored 5th-century mosaic. But, like the Da’abuls, the Afaras stayed in Haifa.

“It doesn’t make sense to take the whole family up north right now,” Afara said.

Part of Afara’s considerations for staying was to lower costs. The outbreak of war on October 7, when Hamas terrorists murdered nearly 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted 253, has hurt the four mills where he works.

“We used to make flour that would go to Gaza but now there’s no more orders. So there’s less work, fewer shifts and no end in sight,” he said.

In Jerusalem, the Good Friday procession attracted a fraction of the usual number, which normally includes thousands of foreign pilgrims.

“Comparing last year’s Easter festivities with this year is like night and day,” Fayaz Dakkak, a Palestinian store owner whose family opened the shop in 1942, told the Associated Press. His shop stood empty.

“Usually people are joyful today and kids are excited,” he said. “But when you compare children here who have water and food and a family to what’s happening in Gaza, how can you be happy?”

Palestinian children sit on a hill next to tents housing the displaced in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 30, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip claims that some 32,000 people have died in Gaza as a result of the war set off by Hamas’s devastating October 7 terror attack. The number is unverified and does not distinguish between civilians and terror group operatives, of whom Israel says it has killed at least 13,000.

In the north, Hezbollah rockets continue to rain down. One of the rockets last week killed a 38-year-old resident of a Druze village near Kiryat Shmona.

Israel has killed more than 200 people, most of them terrorists, in retaliatory strikes in Lebanon. More than 20,000 from Israel’s north remain displaced, even as the vast majority of the 60,000-odd evacuees from the area near the Gaza Strip in the south have returned home.

‘In His hands’

In Haifa, which has heard several warning sirens since October 7 due to inbound objects from across the border, residents are bracing for an escalation. Many remember the Second Lebanon War of 2006, when Hezbollah fired hundreds of rockets into Haifa, killing several people. According to one training scenario by the Israel Defense Forces’ Homefront Command, Hezbollah is capable of launching 4,000 rockets a day at Haifa.

Israeli forces check a building that was hit by a Hezbollah rocket in Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel near the Lebanon border, on March 27, 2024. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

The toned-down atmosphere during Good Friday didn’t prevent vendors from setting up shop along the processions’ routes, selling mostly children’s toys — including plastic toy rifles. At the Catholic procession, a priest heading the march tried to lighten the mood when he sprayed a bit of perfumed water on some children from an aspergillum, evoking shrieks of joy and laughter.

In the pleasant spring breeze wafting from the nearby Haifa Port, the citrus-scented liquid’s aroma blended with the incense billowing from another priest’s thurible.

The marchers sang prayers in Arabic as they made their way slowly through downtown Haifa, an ill-lit part of town with several churches and many stone-tiled homes that have been vacant since the flight of their Arab former inhabitants in 1948, amid heavy fighting between Arabs and Jews in the city. Haifa, where about 290,000 people live, has approximately 70,000 Arabs, evenly split between Muslims and Christians.

Catholic worshipers take part in a Good Friday procession in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 29, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Immediately behind the priests, a group of men carried a giant wooden crucible, lowering it periodically to avoid touching power lines and overhanging traffic lights.

“Look, it’s Easter, when we celebrate God’s absolute power over life, death and everything we know,” said Adel Antoine, a mechanic from Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood, in reference to the fact that the holiday celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his Crucifixion. “So it would make little sense to fear this or that. We are in His hands, and that’s fine.”

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