Inside story

Abandoned for a century, Jaffa Muslim cemetery brings up old ghosts and new fury

Plan to build homeless shelter on burial site draws condemnation from Arab, Haredi MKs; raises claims of excessive police force; and is riling up firebrands as violence spirals

Arabs citizens pray prior to a protest against the decision by the Tel Aviv Municipality to demolish an old Muslim burial ground which was discovered after plans had been made to build a new homeless shelter and commercial space at the site. June 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90) 
Arabs citizens pray prior to a protest against the decision by the Tel Aviv Municipality to demolish an old Muslim burial ground which was discovered after plans had been made to build a new homeless shelter and commercial space at the site. June 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90) îúôìì

After an intense week of protests — and a firebombing — in Jaffa, politicians are weighing in on the spiraling demonstrations gripping the central Israel city against the municipality’s plan to demolish a Muslim graveyard and build a homeless shelter in its place.

The issue has drawn the backing of firebrand Islamic clerics, Arab and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and disgruntled Muslim residents, who view the plan as a desecration of burial rites and have alleged police brutality at the demonstrations. City officials and a court order, by contrast, say the land has been abandoned for a century and denounce the increasingly violent protests.

Hundreds of demonstrators have gathered nightly on Yeffet Street in Jaffa since last Monday, with protests spilling out into neighboring streets downtown. While many protesters demonstrated peacefully, each night thus far has ended in clashes between Jaffa residents and police, with stone throwing, burning cars and multiple arrests.

Saturday was the most violent night of protests yet, with a firebomb hurled at a municipal building, causing light damage to the structure. Later that night, police entered the homes of two teenage boys, aged 13 and 15, and detained them both. The two suspects allegedly possessed flammable material, and the 15-year-old was subsequently arrested, according to police.

Police arrest demonstrators who threw rocks, burned trash cans in protest of a decision to demolish a cemetery in Jaffa on June 10, 2020 (Israel Police)

Saturday’s bombing, along with other elements of the unrest, prompted the US embassy to issue a security alert for the Jaffa area.

On Sunday, Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai blamed police for the violence, saying they were unprepared to handle the situation.

“The incidents in Jaffa were a screw-up by the police. They knew what was going to happen, and they should have dealt with it properly,” Huldai told Channel 12 news.

The graveyard in question, known in Arabic as Maqbarat al-Is’aaf, is one of Tel Aviv’s few Muslim burial sites. According to court filings, the cemetery had gone unnoticed for many years before the Tel Aviv Development Fund decided to demolish an Ottoman-era one-story home that the nonprofit Gagon was using as an improvised homeless shelter. The municipality planned to construct a new, modern three-story shelter on the spot.

Once bulldozers demolished the house, though, the bones of at least 30 people were discovered to have been buried in the structure. Justifying the decision to continue building on the site, Huldai told Channel 12 that it was “impossible in Jaffa to look and not find.” In other words, Jaffa ground is so layered in history that it is impossible to find a place to build that would not offend some residents’ sensitivities.

In response to the planned demolition, Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s only Arab city council member, Abd al-Qader Abu Shehadeh, resigned from the city’s ruling coalition, declaring that the agreements he had signed with the other parties had included clauses guaranteeing the sanctity and inviolability of holy sites.

‘No respect for the bond between people and place’

Muslim residents, who constitute around four percent of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa population, have an uneasy relationship with the city’s identity. While Palestinian residents outnumbered Jewish immigrants in the early days of Zionism, tens of thousands of Palestinians left or were expelled during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

Arabs living in Tel Aviv-Jaffa had seen their historic sites “erased” by the city, Abu Shehadeh told The Times of Israel. Since 1948, several Muslim cemeteries in Tel Aviv have been demolished, including Abd al-Nabi cemetery, of which only a small fragment remains.

“There’s no respect for the bond between people and place,” he said.

Abu Shehadeh said that police were to blame for the violence, accusing officers of using excessive force on protesters.

“I don’t support [the violent protests], but I also won’t condemn it. Let the police come and apologize first for what they’ve done and reconcile with the people… Whether you like it or not, when the police and state institutions act violently, they lose their legitimacy and credibility — and these are the results,” Abu Shehadeh said.

Israeli police at a demonstration attended by Arabs citizens protesting against the decision by the Tel Aviv Municipality to demolish an old Muslim burial ground which was discovered after plans had been made to build a new homeless shelter and commercial space at the site. June 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

In a statement to the Haaretz daily, the Israel Police said that it would “continue working to bring lawbreakers to justice,” adding that the protesters’ “thuggish behavior is disrupting civilian life, endangers human lives and causes damage to property.”

The demonstrations also attracted some of the most controversial figures in Arab Israeli politics. Sheikh Kamil al-Khatib, vice chair of the radical Northern Islamic Movement, gave speeches and led prayers at a “protest tent” in front of the cemetery. The Northern Islamic Movement was banned in 2015, in part due to alleged ties with the Hamas terrorist group, and al-Khatib has been arrested numerous times for incitement to violence.

Another firebrand, Al-Aqsa Imam Ekrima Sa’id Sabri, led Friday prayers amid a large crowd who had gathered to “protect” the cemetery. Sabri, the former grand mufti of Jerusalem, has previously expressed support for suicide bombers and Holocaust denial.

Arabs citizens protest against the decision by the Tel Aviv Municipality to demolish an old Muslim burial ground which was discovered after plans had been made to build a new homeless shelter and commercial space at the site. June 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

“A cemetery’s land remains Islamic holy land, even if it is abandoned,” Sabri said in a speech on Friday.

An unlikely ally

The Joint List, a union of four mostly Arab parties, condemned the city’s move. But support for the cemetery’s preservation also arrived from an unexpected corner: members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. On Thursday, Shas MK Yinon Azoulay sent a letter opposing the demolition to Deputy Interior Ministry Yoav Ben Tzur, also a party member. Ben Tzur sent a request of his own to Huldai on Sunday, asking him to stop construction on the grounds.

Shas MK Yinon Azoulay (Moti Cohen / Wikipedia)

“This is not a cold and formal judicial matter, but a moral issue of the utmost concern, and that is our obligation to protect the dignity of the deceased,” Ben Tzur wrote.

The Interior Ministry, which Shas controls, is ultimately responsible for urban planning and construction across the country.

In his letter, Azulay opposed what he said would be a double standard in the treatment of government Jewish and Islamic sites.

“Additionally, it is our policy as a Jewish state to prevent such disrespect and vandalism in the case of Jewish sites, and I do not think an Islamic graveyard is any different,” Azulay wrote.

Litigants fought in court for over a year over whether the planned demolition would go forward. The battle ended in January 2020, when a Tel Aviv court rejected the Islamic Council’s attempts to preserve the space. Judge Avigail Cohen stated in her decision that the cemetery had not been used by the community for at least 100 years, and had been a public space since at least the 1940s without any legal objections. Moreover, none of the plaintiffs could claim a personal or familial connection to the remains.

An Arab Israeli woman attends Friday prayers next to an 18th century Muslim burial ground ahead of a protest against the decision made by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality to demolish the burial ground and build a shelter for homeless people, June 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“The project’s construction is a response to public need, and uses land that has not be used as a cemetery for over 100 years, and the Muslim community never before treated it as possessing holiness or having a religious affinity,” Cohen wrote.

Cohen’s decision rests on an equally controversial precedent. In 2008, the High Court of Justice issued a ruling permitting the construction of a “Museum of Tolerance” on parts of an ancient Muslim graveyard in Mamila, in Jerusalem. The case had been brought by an organization affiliated with the Northern Islamic Movement.

Construction work on the sidewalk outside the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, June 15, 2020 (ToI staff)

Israel’s Ministry of Antiquities called the site “one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where seventy thousand Muslim warriors of [Saladin’s] armies are interred along with many Muslim scholars.” In the case of the Museum of Tolerance, many prominent Palestinians could actually prove a direct link to those buried in the graveyard, according to court filings. Despite that consideration, however, the High Court ruled in favor of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which pushed ahead with the project.

Palestinian, Israeli and American Jewish civil rights organizations subsequently launched a campaign to prevent the museum’s construction, resulting in the resignation of the project’s chief architect. The museum remains unfinished to this day.

The Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, pictured from an area of the adjacent Muslim cemetery, June 15, 2020 (ToI staff)

In Jaffa, after a few months of attempted negotiations, the municipality decided to go ahead with the planned demolition of the Is’aaf graveyard in early June.

But Abu Shehada said that the municipality had missed a “historic opportunity to show that it understands the feelings of Jaffa residents.”

“The only solution now is for the municipality to immediately stop its project and return to the negotiating table,” he said.

The municipality, however, emphasized that it was proceeding with a plan that the courts had approved. “The perpetrators of these acts were part of a small group that does not represent most of the residents of Jaffa, who have a great deal of trust in the municipality,” it said in a statement.

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