Israel seems to have little time for the irony
that a modern Jewish shrine to "coexistence and tolerance" is being
built on the graves of the city's Muslim forefathers.
The Israeli Supreme Court's approval last week of the building of a Jewish
Museum of Tolerance over an ancient Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem is the latest
in a series of legal and physical assaults on Islamic holy places since Israel's
founding in 1948.
The verdict ended a four-year struggle by Islamic authorities inside Israel
to stop development at the Mamilla cemetery, which lies in the shadow of Jerusalem's
Old City walls, close to Jaffa Gate.
After the judgment, Jerusalem's mufti, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, called the
museum's building "an act of aggression" against the Muslim public.
The furor from both religious and secular Palestinians has apparently bemused
most Israeli observers.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, initiator of the project, dismissed objections last week
as cover for "a land grab by Islamic fundamentalists, who are in cooperation
with Hamas." His view that Muslim concerns are really an attack on the
Jewish state's sovereignty is shared by many.
Such sentiments have confirmed to most Palestinians the degree to which Israeli
authorities make decisions while oblivious of Palestinian religious and national
Although Muslim leaders angrily warned from the outset that the Museum of Tolerance
would require the disinterring of graves, they were ignored until spring 2006,
when it was reported that dozens of skeletons had been unearthed during the
The local media also revealed at the time that state archaeologists had been
secretly trying to move the skeletons without alerting the local Muslim authorities,
as they should have done, and that many of the skeletons had been damaged in
When several months of arbitration between the developers and Muslim leaders
proved fruitless, the courts stepped in.
Ostensibly, the driving force behind the museum, which is to cost $250 million,
is the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a private Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights
organization. But the venture is being pushed through with equal vigor by Israeli
officials from the government, Jerusalem municipality and Lands Administration.
For many years it has been their priority to obscure all indications of the
Muslim presence in the western part of Jerusalem – as well as in many areas
of Israel – that predate the Jewish state's founding in 1948.
The treatment of the Mamilla cemetery, which is said to include the burial
sites of the Prophet Mohammed's companions, stands in stark contrast to another
ancient cemetery, nearby on the Mount of Olives.
Since East Jerusalem was illegally occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, the
Jewish cemetery on the Mount has been carefully renovated and expanded as a
In contrast, the Mamilla cemetery, which lies just inside West Jerusalem and
was captured by the Israeli army in the 1948 war, was immediately removed from
Muslim control. Classified as refugee property, it was passed on to a new Israeli
official called the custodian of absentee property.
This was far from an isolated incident. Before the creation of Israel, as much
as one-tenth of all territory in the Holy Land was managed as part of an Islamic
endowment known as the waqf, bequeathed by Muslims for religious and charitable
After 1948, however, Israel seized all waqf property – in addition to private
land belonging to refugees – and transferred it to the custodian.
Under pressure from the government in the 1950s, the custodian passed most
of the undeveloped land, particularly farmland, on to a state-run body known
as the Development Authority, which was charged with using it for the "public
interest." That usually meant using the profit from the land for the benefit
of the Jewish public.
Other waqf property – mostly land on which holy places, including mosques
and cemeteries, were located – was managed by special Islamic trusts established
by the state.
This has provided the main defense adopted today by Israeli officials in justifying
the siting of the museum. They say that an Islamic trust deconsecrated the Mamilla
cemetery in 1964, thereby freeing up the land for development.
What they fail to point out, however, is that the Islamic trusts have no legitimacy
among Palestinian Muslims in Israel, nearly one-fifth of the country's total
population, let alone among Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The Islamic officials on the trusts are widely seen as corrupt, appointed by
the state because of their willingness to do the government's bidding rather
than because of their public standing or Islamic credentials.
They earned that reputation by rubber-stamping many land transactions of waqf
property desired by the state. One of the most notorious occurred in the early
1960s when Muslim officials approved the sale of the large Abdul Nabi cemetery
in today's Tel Aviv for the building of a hotel and several Jewish housing developments.
This abuse of waqf land has provoked a simmering resentment among Israel's
Last year Palestinians in the historic city of Jaffa, now little more than
a suburb of Tel Aviv, tried to challenge the role of the Islamic trusts by petitioning
the courts to turn control of waqf property over to genuine representatives
of the Muslim public.
The government, however, refused to divulge what waqf property existed in Jaffa,
claiming "the requested information would seriously harm Israel's foreign
relations." This was presumed to refer to the damage that might be done
to Israel's image abroad should it be revealed to what uses the waqf property
had been put.
Actual holy places have fared little better, with most now inaccessible even
to Israel's Palestinian citizens.
Some, such as the 900-year-old Hittin mosque built by Saladin in the Galilee
region, have been fenced off and left to crumble. Others are used by rural Jewish
communities as animal sheds. And yet more have been converted into discos, bars
or nightclubs, including the Dahir al Umar mosque – now the Dona Rosa restaurant
– in the former Palestinian village of Ayn Hawd.
Similar dubious practices occurred with the Mamilla cemetery. From the 1950s,
during a period of military government that imposed severe restrictions on all
Palestinians living inside Israel, the graves and tombs belonging to Jerusalem's
most notable families began to decay. Part of the land was turned into a car
After the 1967 war, as Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem,
has noted, the Muslim authorities lobbied to be allowed to rehabilitate and
maintain the graves, but were refused permission.
Instead, in 1992 the custodian transferred the site to the Jerusalem municipality,
which used the land to establish an Independence Park, named for Israel's victory
in the 1948 war. Then a few years later the municipality transferred a parcel
of the land to the Wiesenthal Center for its Museum of Tolerance.
As Mr. Benvenisti points out, over the years many Islamic sites in Jerusalem
have been "turned into garbage dumps, parking lots, roads and construction
What makes the latest fight over the Mamilla cemetery different is that in
the past decade a new breed of Muslim leader has emerged in Israel to overshadow
the Islamic trusts. In particular the struggle over the fate of the holy places
has been taken up by the leader of the Islamic Movement inside Israel, Sheikh
Last week he warned: "We will mobilize in the Arab and Muslim world so
that it puts pressure to halt the project."
Tolerance, after all, has its limits.
This article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.