Court freezes construction on top of Jaffa Muslim cemetery after angry protests

Court freezes construction on top of Jaffa Muslim cemetery after angry protests

As Jaffa Islamic Council claims municipality lacks valid permit to build homeless shelter, judge says work to be stopped until July 22 hearing; riots continue anyway

Security forces gather ahead of protests in Jaffa, June 12, 2020. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Security forces gather ahead of protests in Jaffa, June 12, 2020. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The Tel Aviv District Court issued an injunction Wednesday against construction work on a homeless shelter in Jaffa, amid ongoing protest after the land was found to be an old Muslim cemetery.

The ruling came after the Jaffa Islamic Council petitioned against the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, claiming its construction permit had expired.

Justice Limor Bibi did not rule on that matter, but set a hearing for July 22 and said the work should be halted until the matter can be clarified.

The municipality said it respected the court order and had stopped the construction work.

The construction atop the cemetery has sparked days of fiery demonstrations in Jaffa, a predominantly Arab city that is part of the Tel Aviv municipality.

Despite the court decision, protests started up again on Wednesday morning as demonstrators gathered around the site and demanded that construction tools and vehicles be removed and that they be let in.

Some were arrested by police after attempting to break into the compound, rioting, throwing rocks and using tear gas on cops, authorities said. Israel Police said an adjacent road had been temporarily blocked due to the protest.

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

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 that the nonprofit Gagon was using as an improvised homeless shelter and build a new and improved three-story shelter in place of the old one.

During protests over the last two weeks, vehicles and trash cans have been torched, rocks thrown at policemen and a firebomb was thrown at a Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality building.

The US Embassy on Saturday issued a security alert for Jaffa, which is in the southern part of Tel Aviv.

MK Mansour Abbas of the majority-Arab Joint List party visited the site on Saturday evening, saying “holy sites are of utmost religious value, necessitating a course correction by Mayor Ron Huldai.”

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party holds a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Litigants fought in court for over a year over whether the planned demolition would go forward.

Once bulldozers demolished the house, the bones of at least 30 people were discovered to have been buried in the structure. The Israel Antiquities Authority 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.

Israeli Arabs attend Friday prayers next to an 18th century Muslim burial ground ahed 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, in Tel Aviv, Friday, June 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The battle temporarily ended in January 2020, when a Tel Aviv court rejected the Islamic Council’s attempts 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 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.

“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.

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