Israeli officials have approved the construction of a massive complex which will include 200 houses, shops and a 480 room hotel in Jerusalem. The problem is this; the land that the complex will be built upon is already part of an Islamic cemetery. Although the land cited for the build is already home to a car-park and school, earlier excavations showed that bones and graves remain underneath.
Located just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, the Mamilla cemetery is said to be the final resting place of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions as well as thousands of Saladin’s warriors who helped expel the Crusaders from the Holy Land nearly 1,000 years ago. It was declared by Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry in 1948 to be “one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries”.
The cemetery has however been chipped away at over the years. A previous plan to build a courthouse at the site was rejected by the Supreme Court amid protests a couple of years ago, but a large chunk is covered with Israel’s Independence Park, established to celebrate Israel’s victory in the 1948 war. Seven years ago Jerusalem City Hall approved a Museum of Tolerance over another section of the cemetery. The Supreme Court approved the construction after officials promised that only “a few dozen graves” would be found at the entire site.
However, an investigation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz showed that this was not the case. It revealed that, amid great secrecy, sometimes throughout the night, an estimated 1,500 graves were unearthed and the human remains inside them were not treated appropriately. One worker was recorded saying: “The skeletons themselves were disintegrating, whatever comes out comes out, if you can put it in a box you do, and if it’s crumbling you leave it.” Gideon Suleimani, an Israeli architect who worked on the Museum of Tolerance excavations told the Haaretz investigation: “They call this an archaeological excavation but it’s really a clearing-out, an erasure of the Muslim past.” Suleimani, has since become a critic of the work, told Middle East Eye that the new plan continued a long-term process. “The policy is to dismantle what is left of Islamic heritage in Jerusalem piece by piece, to clear the area and make it Jewish,” he said.
In Jerusalem, the erasure of the Islamic or Palestinian history is not new. According to Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, many Islamic sites in Jerusalem have over the years been “turned into garbage dumps, parking lots, roads and construction sites”.
East Jerusalem, supposedly the capital of a Palestinian state, was annexed by Israel and declared its undivided capital in 1980. They constructed a wall around it and enforced a strict system of permits, blocking access for many West Bank Palestinians. Since then the Israeli government has embarked on a “Judaisation” project, demolishing endless Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem to make way for a growing number of Israeli settlers- a bid to stamp the city as the capital of Israel and rid it of its Palestinian identity. The Mamilla plans are another example of this; an attempt to de-Arabise Jerusalem’s history.
Yonathan Mizrachi from Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO that seeks to unpick the role archaeology plays in the Israel/Palestine conflict says it is about reinforcing identity. “It is definitely a question of the identity of the land… to who this land belongs and who has more historical right to this land.” But he doesn’t think that the latest development on the Mamilla Cemetery is a game changer in its history. “The main disruption for the cemetery was done when the people who built the Museum of Tolerance decided to build it on the cemetery- instead of a cemetery actually.” He added: “Our main concern is not necessarily just about more and more development. The main problem from our point of view is on one hand they (the Israeli authorities) are destroying and on the other hand they are not protecting or emphasising the importance of this cemetery to the public.”
“We definitely feel and think the Israeli Authorities are not emphasising enough, or taking care of enough, heritage that is not considered to be linked to the Israeli people, and the Mamilla cemetery is definitely one of these examples,” said Yonathan. “What we are demanding from the Israeli Authority is to protect, no matter to what religion the place belongs to. They must be protected because they are all important to the history of Jerusalem.”
The new plans to develop at the site of the cemetery comea at a time when things are getting much more tense at another site of great Islamic importance. Arab League foreign ministers will meet in Cairo early next month to discuss clashes involving Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. In recent months, groups of extremist Jewish settlers – often accompanied by Israeli security forces – have repeatedly forced their way into the Al-Aqsa complex. Clashes, which have left many activists injured and arrested, often erupt in protest of increasing Jewish claims to the site.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.