August 14th, 2010
09:31 AM ET
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.
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