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Palestine’s Mamilla Cemetery and Israel’s colonial project

Partial view of of the historical Mamilla Cemetery, Jerusalem [Yoninah/Wikipedia]
Partial view of of the historical Mamilla Cemetery, Jerusalem [Yoninah/Wikipedia]

Israel has many instruments with which to conduct its colonial project in occupied Palestine: cutting-edge military technology; its nuclear weapons and strategic alliance with the US that Israel’s deterrence factor relies on; and US diplomatic protection to contain countries attempting to stop the colonial-settlement of historical Palestine. Now even the dead are being involved, as the story of the Mamilla Cemetery in occupied Jerusalem attests.

Mamilla is a neighbourhood of Israeli-occupied Jerusalem, located to the west of the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. It is known mainly for its commercial activities in Mamilla Mall that was built in 2007.

As with all of Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods, Mamilla also hosts dozens of historical sites and structures. Mamilla pool is said to have been built by the Romans and gives the area its name. However, the name originates from the Arabic roots “Maman Allah”, which means “water of God” or “benefit from God”.

For centuries, Mamilla Cemetery has been a burial place for Muslims. Some of the Blessed Companions of Prophet Muhammad are buried there, as are some of Salahuddin Al-Ayyoubi’s soldiers and generals.

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During the Ottoman period, in 1860, the cemetery was protected by a 2 metre-high fence and Jerusalemites continued to use it as a burial site. In 1927, the Muslim Supreme Court decided to declare the area as a historical site and maintain the tombs in good condition.

In 1948, though, that changed with the creation of the state of Israel and the occupation of West Jerusalem. Mamilla was deemed by the Zionist government to come under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Department of Absentee Landholders. Following the 1967 occupation of the rest of Jerusalem, the Islamic Waqf (Endowment) Department submitted a petition to get the cemetery back and resume burials there.

The Israeli authorities rejected this, and the Jerusalem municipality took the first step to erase Palestinian heritage from the area by turning a large part of the cemetery into a public space, called ‘’Independence Park’’. Many graves were removed in the process, as they were years later when cafes, a car park and, ironically, a “Museum of Tolerance” were planned for the cemetery.

“Museum of Tolerance”

In 2004, the Israeli government and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre announced plans for the so-called Museum of Tolerance. By that time, only 8 per cent of Mamilla Cemetery was left, with only 5 per cent of the graves.

The museum is planned to be a multimedia centre for children and adults with theatre and education facilities. The Centre announced the project as a 21st century project dealing with “contemporary issues crucial to Israel’s future — intolerance, anti-Semitism, terrorism, Jewish unity and mutual respect and human dignity for all.”

Once the construction of the museum started, Palestinians and international supporters responded. In 2006, the families whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery, along with human rights organisations, submitted complaints to the Israeli Supreme Court. Petitions were also sent to the UN and UNESCO but to no avail.

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According to the chief archaeologist of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, Gideon Suleimani, the human bones unearthed during the construction of the museum date back to 1278; those who were buried in that area were the political, military and religious elite of the Muslim community. His report led Israeli academics and media to raise concerns; the Supreme Court then suspended excavations temporarily. In 2008, the Court declared that the project could continue on the basis that a car park had been built in the area more than 40 years ago which had raised no objections.

Another effort to halt excavation was a petition presented to five different UN bodies in February 2010. Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi and other individuals from sixty families in Jerusalem whose ancestors were buried in Mamilla Cemetery organised a “campaign to preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery”. The Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York supported a petition to the UN but it didn’t stop Israel and the Israeli Antiquities Authority from digging up even more graves.

Even the dead are dangerous for Israel

For the Zionists, whatever is linked to Palestinian identity poses a threat to their colonial plan to Judaise Palestine. In their thinking, places like Mamilla Cemetery are evidence of the land’s Palestinian history and must be erased.

Even though the Wiesenthal Centre claimed that ‘’the [human] remains were handled in keeping with the highest standards and High Court’s guidelines’’, lawyer Ahmad Amara, who was responsible for defending the Mamilla Cemetery between 2004 and 2007, saw for himself that bones were desecrated and thrown into cartons and left on one side. What Suleimani described as an “archaeological crime” continued despite the legal protests by Palestinians. Between 2008 and 2009 alone, around 1,000 skeletons were dug up and removed from the site.

In 2010, the Israeli Land Administration bulldozed 300 Muslim gravestones in the cemetery. The following year, another 100 were destroyed. Vandals from the “Price tag” settlers’ group attacked the cemetery in 2011, spraying ‘’Death to the Arabs” on gravestones.

Also in 2011, eighty-four archaeologists demanded that the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israeli Antiquities Authority should end the museum construction. The project, they argued, was against all of the ethics of archaeology. ‘’The bulldozing of historic cemeteries is the ultimate act of territorial aggrandisement,” said Yale University Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology Harvey Weiss, “the erasure of prior residents.’’

Despite all of the objections, the “Museum of Tolerance” is expected to open in a few months’ time to coincide with the state of Israel’s 70th anniversary. That, of course, was the beginning of the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe); the Nakba is ongoing.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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