Court rejects appeal against construction on Jaffa Muslim cemetery
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Court rejects appeal against construction on Jaffa Muslim cemetery

Ruling allows work to continue immediately for homeless shelter on site; Jaffa Islamic Council ordered to pay legal costs to Tel Aviv municipality

Police arrest demonstrators who threw rocks, burned trash cans in protest of decision to demolish cemetery in Jaffa on June 10, 2020 (Israel Police)
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 Tel Aviv District Court on Tuesday rejected a petition by the Jaffa Islamic Council against the construction of a shelter for homeless people on a plot that was found to be an old Muslim cemetery.

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

Judge Limor Bibi canceled a previous injunction against work at the site, which will continue immediately. She also ruled that the Islamic Council must pay the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality and the Tel Aviv Foundation NIS 7,500 each for legal costs.

The cemetery, known in Arabic as Maqbarat al-Isaaf, is one of Tel Aviv’s few Muslim burial sites. The graveyard had gone unnoticed for many years until the city decided to build a three-story homeless shelter on its grounds. When bulldozers demolished the structure that was atop the cemetery to make way for the shelter, the bones of at least 30 people were discovered to have been buried in the structure.

The Islamic Council began organizing residents to prevent the demolition, but the municipality rejected the claims that the site constituted a place of special significance to Jaffa’s Muslim community, noting that it had been abandoned for decades, if not centuries. The municipality also argued that the project would be conducted with sensitivity to the remains at the site, which will be moved only “the minimum necessary.”

“It is impossible in Jaffa to look and not find,” Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai said, indicating that in a city with a history as rich as Jaffa’s, ruins and remains might lie under every sidewalk and building.

After a year of legal wrangling, a Tel Aviv court rejected the Islamic Council’s arguments and allowed the demolition to go forward. Protests against the demolition by Jaffa residents saw a number of violent clashes with police, as well as several arrests. Vehicles and trash cans were torched, rocks were thrown at policemen and a firebomb was lobbed at a municipality building. In the aftermath, both Arab members of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council left the city’s ruling coalition.

The Tel Aviv District Court subsequently issued an injunction in late June to freeze construction until an appeal could be heard.

Israeli Arabs attend 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, in Tel Aviv, June 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

After the drama of protesters and police facing off in the streets, the Islamic Council’s appeal centered on a rather dry objection. The council said that the city was attempting to build with an expired permit. The validity of building permits expires after a year of disuse, according to court filings.

In her decision allowing work in the cemetery to continue, Bibi, the judge, criticized the Islamic Council and the other plaintiffs for presenting what she said were inconsistent arguments.

Bibi said that the Islamic Council had acknowledged in its own petition to the High Court that some work had been ongoing at the site in the intervening time, which, she said, put the defendants legally in the clear.

“At no point did more than a year pass since construction ceased. As such, the permit is still valid,” Bibi said.

Islamic Council attorney Ramzi Katilat told The Times of Israel that the Islamic Council was still willing to find an alternative location and bear whatever costs were associated with transferring the project. So far, Katilat said, the municipality had not been serious about respecting the demands of Jaffa residents.

“We want the municipality to find an alternative place… Tel Aviv is a rich municipality, with a surplus of wealth and property. But they nonetheless have persisted for years with this project,” Katilat said.

The municipality welcomed the court’s decision, calling the homeless shelter “an important social project aimed at providing rehabilitation to hundreds of homeless people.”

“The court’s decision proves that the municipality has worked and will continue to work with sensitivity and according to the law,” Huldai said in a statement.

Still, if the demolition proceeds as planned, both parties could find themselves in the same position as they were in early June. This time, however, judicial intervention to calm the waters seems unlikely.

Katilat said that the court’s decision to allow the demolition to resume could see the return of protests to Jaffa.

“Our rights do not derive from courts. They derive from the fact that we are the original residents of this land. Those rights do not change by a court’s decree. The protests will continue until the solution we want as Muslims and as Jaffa residents is achieved, which is the end of the construction,” he said.

“We have the street, and we will continue our movement from the street if talking proves fruitless,” Katilat added.

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