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Meet the Palestinian Arab woman running for mayor of Jesus' childhood home

Nazareth's incumbent mayor Ramiz Jaraisy stands in his office in front of portraits of past mayors.
Nazareth's incumbent mayor Ramiz Jaraisy stands in his office in front of portraits of past mayors.Paul Goldman / NBC News
Nazareth mayoral candidate Haneen Zoabi speaks with journalists.
Nazareth mayoral candidate Haneen Zoabi speaks with journalists.Paul Goldman / NBC News

NAZARETH, Israel – An Arab runs for mayor in a historically Christian town in a Jewish country. That’s not the start of a bad joke, it's the reality of one of the more hotly contested mayoral elections as Israelis head to the polls on Oct. 22.

The incumbent Christian mayor for the last 16 years, Ramiz Jaraisy, is battling to maintain his seat. He is facing fierce competition from several candidates – with a 44-year-old Muslim woman, Haneen Zoabi, leading the pack.

Changing demographics

The Israeli city of Nazareth is best known as the childhood home of Jesus - who was born almost 100 miles away in Bethlehem - and the site of the Annunciation, when Mary was told by the Angel Gabriel that she would give birth to the son of God, according to the Gospel of Luke.

The city has been a tourist attraction for Christians visiting the Holy Land for decades.

“I tease the mayor of Bethlehem," said Nazareth’s current mayor, Jaraisy. "I tell him Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but he is called ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’”

But in modern times, Nazareth is known as the “Arab capital of Israel” with its mixed population of 82,000 consisting of 69 percent Muslims and 31 percent Christians, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics in 2009.    

"These elections are coming amid rising sectarian tensions, not only in Israel, but in the region," said political analyst Wadie Abu Nassar, referring to issues between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt. "There are hopes that there will be no Christian Muslim problems."

Female Palestinian challenger

The leading opposition candidate, Zoabi, is a Palestinian Arab and an Israel citizen. She is the first Arab-Israeli woman to be elected as a member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

Zoabi is known most for her active role against the Israeli occupation, when she took part in the Turkish flotilla that tried to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza in 2010. She was on board the Mavi Marmara boat when it was raided by Israeli commando forces, resulting in the deaths of nine activists.

"The freedom flotilla sent a message to my people that I say and do what I believe and I will do the same in the municipality,” Zoabi has said.

Nazareth's incumbent mayor Ramiz Jaraisy stands in his office in front of portraits of past mayors.
Nazareth's incumbent mayor Ramiz Jaraisy stands in his office in front of portraits of past mayors.Paul Goldman / NBC News

Zoabi feels the local election is a big part of the national struggle of the Palestinians against the Israeli occupation.

"For me, Nazareth is my homeland – which I lost," Zoabi said. "I don’t believe we can get our rights without struggling. You must struggle and the current mayor doesn’t know how to do so.”

Both claim minority vote

Both candidates claim to represent the minority in the larger Israeli political context: Jaraisy as a Christian and Zoabi as a Muslim. But at the same time, both candidates downplay any sectarian strife between the groups – instead blaming the Israeli establishment for any tension between two sides.

"The Israeli establishment has an interest in causing tensions between Muslims and Christians," Jaraisy said. "Because creating these interior tensions means to decrease our ability and struggle for equal rights."

She added, "Israel is interested in a weak Arab society and doesn't want to empower us. Some want to divide us by using the religious issue.”

While the tourism industry is strong, the city has no cinemas, no playgrounds, a high rate of violence and almost no new building permits. As a result of the lack of resources, about 1,200 families each year leave Nazareth and head to a neighboring Jewish city Nazareth Illit.

Residents are drawn to Nazareth Illit because they claim the city enjoys more government funds.

While there are no accurate polls showing who is currently leading the race, the hope on the streets of Nazareth is that whoever wins will provide a source of stability between Christians and Muslims, and will be able to do battle with the Israeli authorities to provide more resources for a better future.