Fresh clashes in Jaffa over plan to build homeless shelter on Muslim burial site
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Fresh clashes in Jaffa over plan to build homeless shelter on Muslim burial site

For second night in a row, demonstrators burn trash cans, throw stones at police; four people arrested

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)

Dozens of protesters took to the streets of Jaffa on Wednesday, clashing with police in a second night of demonstrations against plans to build a homeless shelter on land discovered to have been an ancient Muslim cemetery.

Police said the protesters set trash cans on fire and threw stones at officers, who arrested four people.

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 by Jaffa’s famous 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. Litigants fought in court for over a year over whether or not the planned demolition would go forward. 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. The city hoped to build a new and improved three-story shelter in its place.

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 one hundred years, and had been legally 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.

“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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