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August 14th, 2010
09:31 AM ET

Muslims oppose Israeli construction at Islamic cemetery

Eve Bower in Atlanta and Kareem Khadder in Jerusalem submitted this report:

Just before midnight on August 9, the bulldozers moved in and destruction of Jerusalem's best-known Islamic cemetery was once again under way.

The controversy surrounding the project - new construction on an area overlapping the cemetery of Ma'man Allah (God's Sanctuary) or Mamilla, as it is known in West Jerusalem - had simmered for years. That night, over 100 more graves in the ancient cemetery were demolished, further eroding what Palestinians see as a losing battle to preserve a sacred cultural landmark.

Mamilla, Jerusalem's oldest Islamic cemetery, dates back to the early days of Islam in the sixth century AD. Many of the people buried in the cemetery are believed to have been Islamic scholars and others who knew the Prophet Mohammad, including Islamic warriors who fought the crusaders in Jerusalem.

In more recent years, the cemetery has been in the spotlight amid controversy over Israel's plan to build a number of structures on top of the site, including the Museum of Tolerance, a parking lot, a park and an Israeli government building. The announcement of the construction plan outraged many Palestinians, who saw the project as one that desecrated holy land for the sake of a tourist attraction.

The Museum of Tolerance, affiliated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says that the site of the proposed development has not been part of the cemetery for almost 50 years, and cites as justification for the development's location a 1964 declaration by "the highest Muslim religious authorities" that the "entire area" was "an abandoned, ancient cemetery where public facilities may be built."

Palestinian groups petitioned the United Nations to intervene in efforts to go forward with the building project, but the Israeli courts ruled that since the graveyard had been in disuse for several decades, building could commence, and in 2006, the proposed development came one step closer to reality: Then-mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger laid the foundation stone for the museum.

Since then, sections of the cemetery have been periodically razed by developers seeking to move forward with new construction, but progress is halting, as protests from the cemetery's supporters occasionally result in the suspension of additional building.

On Monday, the Jerusalem Municipality, working as the project's developers, obtained the Jerusalem Magistrate Court's approval to resume demolition and the bulldozers moved in late Monday night. Journalists at the cemetery reported that police officers and private armed security personnel tried to bar filming and documentation of the efforts under way on the grounds that they were endangering their lives.

CNN shot footage of the tombstones being destroyed before journalists' access was denied. These same tombstones have emerged as yet another flash point in the controversy.

Opponents of the construction site argue that the tombstones that have been destroyed recently dated back to ancient times. There were Israeli media reports, however, that the tombstones that were destroyed had been added to the land only recently, with the intent to obstruct the construction project.

Israel's Channel 10 reported on August 5 that "in the last month, surprisingly, 150 new tombstones were added. The Jerusalem municipality decided to demolish the fake tombstones."

Zaki Ighbarieh, head of The Aqsa Foundation, said, "Their claim that we have built new graves is an excuse for them to destroy the entire cemetery. We will continue to repair the graves that were destroyed because the land is for graves."

He added, "We believe this is a completion of a land confiscation process by a museum and other venues like a parking lot and streets." The Aqsa Foundation is a group dedicated to preserving Islamic heritage and culture, and had undertaken the restoration of a number of the headstones.

The legal framework in which the grave preservations and demolitions happen is fraught with mixed messages and competing jurisdictions, leaving the permissibility of either action hotly contested by various groups.

The Aqsa Foundation challenges the legality of the demolition efforts of the past week, which it says have included the destruction of nearly 350 graves altogether.

"I can call it theft of graves," the group's lawyer, Mohammad Suleiman Ighbarieh said, due to the fact that demolition had restarted on August 3 without a court order. It was only after hundreds of graves were destroyed, Ighbarieh said, that the Jerusalem Magistrate gave approval for the demolition to resume.

According to the Aqsa Foundation, for the past year, the Islamic Sharia Court in Jerusalem has had a verbal agreement with the Municipality of Jerusalem to allow the Aqsa Foundation to carry out cemetery improvements and renovations of graves.

To resume grave demolitions, Aqsa spokesman Mahmoud Abu Atta argues, the developers would have needed to obtain agreement from the Islamic Sharia Court, which has been appointed with power of attorney as caretaker of the Mamilla cemetery.

Even where formal judicial approval for the demolitions is granted, the activity itself remains highly controversial.

"If they say they have court orders to demolish, then why are they demolishing in the middle of the night?" Abu Atta said.

Ighbarieh took photos and other evidence from the cemetery to the court and filed a formal request for the court to order that the grave demolitions stop.

The decision, issued Tuesday, August 10, mandated coordination with Islamic power of attorney in order for any construction to continue. This meant that if the municipality wanted to resume demolition from Tuesday onward, it would need the express consent of the Islamic Sharia Court.

Despite the Islamic Sharia Court's refusal to consent, on Tuesday night, demolition continued.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Interfaith issues • Islam • Israel • Judaism

soundoff (430 Responses)
  1. Jinia

    Zionists have a sociopathic personality = no feeling for others,a grandioise idea of self and love of power.This is what Israel has become a PARASITE,This is heartless and it disgusts me hoe for years America sends money to these killers and users.They deserve nothing from America.This is sickening.

    February 26, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  2. Naiem

    its just another plan from the illuminate trying to turn jews and muslims against each other and awaken the holy war that we had thousands of years ago and da only reason they doing this is too cause hatred and satin feeds off hatred the more hatred the more satin is taking over our world think people before its too late

    January 12, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  3. Liberal bigots

    Muslims turned churches in England into mosques and the adjacent cemeteries into parking lots. How come none of the liberal bigots seem to have a problem with that. As far I am concerned, they can demolish all the muslim cemeteries they want. The liberal bigots and muslims are my role models.

    August 25, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
  4. Hanna

    Israel is a threat to humanity, they call themselves democratic yet have no respect for any international laws. It's disgusting to see how Israel just can go on their barbaric rampage. Israel teach hate and fear to it's siticenze yet scream out that they are victims. I do NOT feel compassion nore do I feel sorry for Israel anymore. If Russia ore any non jewish country would destroy jewish cemetaries the jews would have taken them to court. Unfotunally for the Palestinians the only court they can go to is the Israelig one, AND we all know wich side this so called democratic court will take.

    August 19, 2010 at 4:04 am |
  5. Smith in Oregon

    To those that are trying to qualify this heartless destruction of a old Islamic cemetery by Israel is OK and the same as Muslims placing their 'mosque' at ground zero in NYC.

    The proposed Muslim building 2 city blocks from ground zero in NYC is simply a COMMUNITY CENTER which includes a prayer room which could be used for Muslims as well as non-Muslim visitors.

    This old run-down building is not some 'Mosque' with Minarets and Domes which the Faux news network has been spewing out to divide, confuse and mislead the America people.

    This old run-down building is TWO CITY BLOCKs from the Twin Towers site. Next to a Strip-Bar and a Burger King. Are the Faux news network thinking the Strip-Bar is also on 'sacred ground'? Of course not, they don't want you to know it is simply a community center located in a old-building next to a Strip-Bar and a Burger King.

    Next door is the Dakota Roadhouse tavern, ok for the roadhouse but down on a community center?

    AND folks are using that to OK the Israeli's bulldozing a Islamic cemetery? Come on, this latest action by Israel is simply another grave insult to the Islamic people, Islamic ancestors and to all of Israel's Arabic neighbors. It is nothing but the act of a bully rubbing intolerable actions into the faces of those the bully see's as the weak.

    With Israel working up their Arabic neighbors to a fever pitch of outrage, hatred and anger, Israel could end up receiving that coming back on them like a tidal wave.

    August 18, 2010 at 6:31 pm |
  6. Selfish Gene

    This is what Israelis do for fun. Yeah religion!

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100816/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_israel_palestinians_facebook

    August 17, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.