The Israeli Supreme Court’s approval last week of the building of a Jewish Museum of Tolerance over an ancient Muslim cemetery in
The verdict ended a four-year struggle by Islamic authorities inside
After the judgment,
The furore 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 co-operation 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 rights.
Although Muslim leaders angrily warned from the outset that 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 the process.
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
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
Since East Jerusalem was illegally occupied by
In contrast, the Mamilla cemetery, which lies just inside
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 purposes.
After 1948, however,
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 defence 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
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
Last year Palestinians in the historic city of
The government, however, refused to divulge what waqf property existed in
Actual holy places have fared little better, with most now inaccessible even to
Some, such as the 900-year-old Hittin mosque built by Saladin in the
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
After the 1967 war, as Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of
Instead, in 1992 the custodian transferred the site to the
As Mr Benvenisti points out, over the years many Islamic sites in
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
Last week he warned: “We will mobilise in the Arab and Muslim world so that it puts pressure to halt the project.”
Tolerance, after all, has its limits.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth,
This article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in