Cars set alight over Jaffa plan to build homeless shelter on Muslim burial site
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Cars set alight over Jaffa plan to build homeless shelter on Muslim burial site

Municipality building also damaged in reported firebombing; city vows to go ahead with construction

Firefighters work to extinguish a vehicle set alight in Jaffa on June 13, 2020, as protests continue over city plans to build a homeless shelter on an ancient Muslim burial site. (Israel Fire and Rescue Services, Dan District)
Firefighters work to extinguish a vehicle set alight in Jaffa on June 13, 2020, as protests continue over city plans to build a homeless shelter on an ancient Muslim burial site. (Israel Fire and Rescue Services, Dan District)

A number of vehicles were set on fire and a municipality building was firebombed in Jaffa overnight Friday-Saturday, according to the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, as the unrest continued over plans to build a homeless shelter on land discovered to have been an old Muslim burial site.

According to the news site N12, 13 incidents of vandalism were recorded overnight including cars and trucks set on fire and a building belonging to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality hit with a Molotov cocktail.

Responding firefighters put out the fires at around 4:00 a.m. on Saturday, according to the report.

The municipality issued a statement condemning the attack, saying that “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.” The city said these acts would not affect plans to build the homeless shelter and that these would go ahead “as the court has approved.”

Police said officers were working to identify the perpetrators, whose “bullying behavior disturbs the daily routines of residents, endangers human lives and damages property.”

Israeli police officers at a demonstration 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)

Friday’s was the third protest over the building plans this week alone.

On Wednesday, dozens of protesters took to the streets in Jaffa, clashing with police, setting trash cans on fire and throwing stones at officers. Four people were arrested.

The demonstrations were smaller than those that erupted Tuesday when some 300 protesters clashed with police. A video released by police showed a Tel Aviv city bus with shattered windows stopped by the side of the road and riot police using stun grenades to disperse the rioters near Jaffa’s iconic clock tower. Police said the demonstrators also burned trash cans and some cars. Some reports said the violence started when police blocked the marchers and tried to disperse them with force.

The dispute is over a site, known in Arabic as Maqbarat al-Is’aaf, Tel Aviv’s only known Muslim graveyard. 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 which the nonprofit Gagon was using as an improvised homeless shelter.

Litigants fought in court for over a year over whether or not the planned demolition would go forward; the city hoped to build a new and improved three-story shelter in place of the old one.

Muslim citizens pray prior to a protest on June 12, 2020, against a decision by the Tel Aviv Municipality to demolish an old Muslim burial ground amid plans to build a new homeless shelter and commercial space at the site. June 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Once bulldozers demolished the house, though, the bones of at least 30 people were discovered to have been buried in the structure. The Antiquities Ministry determined that the cemetery contained bones from the Ottoman period all the way back to the Hellenistic period. The Islamic Council built tombstones over each of the graves.

Negotiations between the Council and the city over the site proved unsuccessful. The High Court of Justice subsequently ordered the construction halted so the matter could be adjudicated in court.

The battle ended in January 2020, when a Tel Aviv court rejected claims by the Council to preserve the space. Judge Avigayil 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.

“The project’s construction is a response to public need, and uses land which 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 arguments, however, do not seem to have convinced some Jaffa residents, who objected strongly to the destruction of the structure from the start.

“The Muslim community in Jaffa in general and all of the city’s residents have no problem with the homeless project, and it’s appropriate to find a physical location for it, but not over a Muslim cemetery,” Tel Aviv city council member Amir Badran told the Haaretz daily.

Sheikh Kamal Khatib, the deputy chief of the banned Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, addressed demonstrators at the protest.

While the movement’s southern branch is seen as relatively moderate, the Northern Branch is understood to have ties to terrorist groups such as Hamas. The Northern Branch was outlawed in 2015, and Khatib has been arrested numerous times by police for incitement to violence.

“Our battle for this cemetery is no different than our battle for al-Aqsa,” Khatib said at the protest, referring to the mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. “For almighty God in his wisdom made of this whole land a waqf,” or holy site.

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