Mamilla Cemetery: The price of tolerance

By Covering Religion Staff

Story by Omar Kasrawi and Sommer Saadi

An Accompanying slide show of Mamilla Cemetery can be found here.

Rawan Dajani outside her ancestor's mausoleum in Mamilla. (Omar Kasrawi/Journey to Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM — Standing outside a mausoleum in Jerusalem’s Mamilla cemetery, Rawan Dajani bows her head and cups her hands upwards. Silently she mouths the words of the Quran’s first chapter, “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds.” The prayer is for her ancestor Sheikh Ahmed Dajani, who was buried in Mamilla, the oldest Muslim burial ground in Jerusalem, nearly half a millennia ago.

Approximately 200 meters away, a fenced off construction zone marks the future site of the California-based Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Center for Human Dignity–Museum of Tolerance. In 2002 the City of Jerusalem allotted the Center land that is considered part of the cemetery, according to a 1936 governmental survey map. The Center will focus on “issues of global anti-Semitism, extremism and human dignity,” according to the Museum’s website.

The Center broke ground in 2004, and construction has displaced hundreds of Muslim graves dating as far back as the 7th century. The human remains were discovered during an archeological dig, referred to as a “salvage excavation,” before building began. Salvage excavations are conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority to document and rescue antiquities prior to construction operations.

The controversy surrounding Mamilla cemetery is not unique in Israel. Protests have been held against many construction plans because of concerns that gravesites will be desecrated. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups have especially taken up this cause, like in the recent case of the Barzalai Medical Center in Ashkelon, where groups have protested the construction of an emergency ward on top of a Jewish cemetery.

Sometimes building plans are halted and diverted and sometimes they go ahead despite the protests, like in the case of Ashkelon. In a recent decision, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed plans to have the ward relocated, citing security and economic concerns.

What is unusual about Mamilla, however, is that because the controversy involves a Jewish organization and a Muslim gravesite in Jerusalem, it’s more an issue of foreign policy than domestic policy.

The Wiesenthal project is the latest among several that have encroached upon the Mamilla cemetery. It has provoked petitions from Palestinian descendants of the buried, as well as such groups as Rabbis for Human Rights and the Center for Jewish Pluralism. Dajani, whose family’s name is prominent in Palestine, is one of those petitioners.

“I feel like I have lots of energy to do something” about the construction, said Dajani, 26, who works at Al-Quds University. “But at the end I understand that this is very difficult. The Israelis will not let us do anything easily.”

Protest efforts include restoring headstones and circulating petitions designed to pressure the Israeli government and the Wiesenthal Center into halting construction. One such petition, sponsored by the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery, has reached the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The council passed a resolution on March 24 that “expresses its grave concern at the excavation of ancient tombs” and “calls upon the government of Israel to immediately desist from such illegal activities.” The resolution passed 31 to 10 with six abstentions, and among the 10 naysayers were the U.S. and several European nations.

“This is a small victory, but it’s important to get this language on the books,” said Dima Khalidi, legal counsel for the families who signed the petition. “This shows that it’s a human rights violation not an isolated denial of Palestinian rights.”

However, Wiesenthal Center leaders believe that the UN Human Rights Council decision holds no legitimacy.

“The council is just a template for Israel bashing,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “You have pretty much the kangaroo court. Israel is the only nation on the planet that is exclusively singled out by that august body.”

The cemetery’s controversial history can be traced to the building of the Palace Hotel in 1929. The Mufti of Jerusalem, who commissioned the hotel, kept secret the discovery of graves during construction, according to Israeli historian Tom Segev in his book One Palestine, Complete. Petitioners argue, however, that the Palace hotel was never within the cemetery boundaries defined during Ottoman rule in the 1860s.

Despite its designation as an antiquities site in 1944 by the British Mandate, several projects have continued to encroach upon the cemetery grounds located in western Jerusalem. These include Independence Park built in the 1960s, a parking lot built in 1964, the building of access roads and the laying of electric cables.

The fact that there have been other things built in the area is part of the Weisenthal Center’s rationale for building the Museum of Tolerance. Supporters of the center argue that Muslims in both Palestinian territories and the Arab world have built roads, commercial centers and public buildings on their own cemeteries.

“It is preposterous to hold the Center for Human Dignity to a higher standard than the Muslims adhere to themselves,” reads the Wiesenthal website.

The Wiesenthal Center also cites several additional factors in support of its construction plan: a lack of protests against the previous construction, the failure to file proper objections at city council meetings and the 1964 declaration by a Muslim judge that the cemetery was no longer sanctified. Additionally, the Center argues that the museum is not even being built on the cemetery, but rather on the adjacent municipal car park. Last December, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the ruling that construction could continue.

In response, Palestinians say there have been protests since the 1960s. They also say that the Muslim judge’s ruling was invalid because evidence from recent excavations proves there were still bones under the parking lot, a conclusion supported by the Shariaa High Court of Appeals, which filed a letter outlining that defense to the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information sometime after February 2006.

Gideon Sulimani, chief archaeologist in charge of excavating the museum site, discovered more than 200 bodies during the dig in 2005. Sulimani was appointed by the Israel Antiquities Authority, a governmental body tasked with preserving the integrity of historical sites. Sulimani says they only excavated 10 percent of the area and estimates up to 1,000 bodies may remain buried. He recommended the site not be released for construction because of the discovery of those bodies. Regardless, he says in his affidavit, the Antiquities Authorities informed the Supreme Court “almost the entire area of excavation had been cleared for construction because it contains no further scientific data.”

“It’s part of the conflict about who owns the land,” Sulimani said. “It’s not archaeology. It’s not science. They want to move away the Muslim memory of the area to make it Jewish. So it’s totally politics.”

According to its website, the Israel Antiquities Authority could require a construction site to move, depending on an excavation’s findings, but that such a change is “quite rare.” In most cases “the IAA will permit work to continue, with the exception of the section destined for rebuilding, which will be completely excavated, documented and finds removed from the site prior to its destruction.”

The Antiquities Authority did not respond to repeated attempts for a comment specific to the Mamilla case.

Protest leaders say the cemetery is a clear example of the deep Palestinian roots in Jerusalem, and that construction on top of the cemetery is an attempt by the Israeli government to minimize the Palestinian identity. Jerusalemite families have been buried in the cemetery for the past 1,000 years, and archeological evidence supports the claim that the remains of soldiers and officials of the Muslim ruler Saladin are among the buried.

Some of the Palestinians involved believe that the planned construction cannot be stopped but are hopeful that even as the new museum rises, their efforts will bring some acknowledgment to the Muslim burial ground that once stood on the site. According to Diyala Husseini Dajani, an active protestor with family ties to Mamilla, nearly $18,000 was raised to support a memorial wall that will display the names of everyone buried in the cemetery.  At the very least, she maintains that such a wall will restore the Palestinian presence to the area.

“It’s not that I’m concerned about the graves as much as I’m concerned about the fact that we don’t exist” to the Israelis, Husseini said. “We are maybe just souls–like those in the graveyard.”

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