US Embassy issues security alert for Jaffa after cars torched during unrest

Diplomatic mission recommends personnel stay away, advises citizens to ‘remain vigilant,’ amid violence in response to city plans to build homeless shelter on Muslim burial site

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 US Embassy on Saturday issued a security alert for the Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv, due to ongoing protests there over plans to build a homeless shelter on land discovered to be an old Muslim burial ground.

“Protests continue this evening near the Clock Tower and throughout the city of Jaffa. Protests may turn violent to include vandalism, rock-throwing, burning of tires, vehicles, and fire bombs. Embassy personnel have been advised to maintain situational awareness and avoid the area tonight,” a statement on the embassy’s website said.

It added: “The Embassy strongly encourages US citizens to remain vigilant and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness, as security incidents often take place without warning.”

MK Mansour Abbas of the majority-Arab Joint List 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)

He added that a solution was possible “that will end tensions over the cemetery.”

Overnight, a number of vehicles were torched and a firebomb was thrown at a Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality building as unrest continued.

According Channel 12, 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.

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.”

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.

Firefighters work to extinguish a vehicle set alight in Jaffa on Saturday, 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)

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.

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.

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 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.

“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.

Most Popular
read more: