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Israel's destruction of historic cemeteries threatens a fragile calm 

Palestinian mother Umm Alaa is interrupted by Israeli police while visiting her son's grave, who died of heart attack in 2017, near the eastern walls of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Old City region of Jerusalem on October 25, 2021 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]
Palestinian mother Umm Alaa is interrupted by Israeli police while visiting her son's grave, who died of heart attack in 2017, near the eastern walls of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Old City region of Jerusalem on October 25, 2021 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

A team of Israeli municipality workers escorted by police officers began to bulldoze Al-Yusufiya Muslim Cemetery a few metres away from the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa in October, sweeping away human remains and scattering bones in the process. Palestinian Jerusalemites rushed to the cemetery to defend the gravestones of their loved ones in response to the Israeli move.

Named after the prominent Muslim figure Al-Nasir Salah Al-Din Yusuf, better known as Saladin, Al-Yusufiya Cemetery was established centuries ago as a burial site for Muslims. It is one of the Islamic landmarks in occupied East Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the Israeli municipality plans to establish a group of theme parks known as the "Bible Trail" that are also going to engulf Palestinian residential areas in the neighbourhoods around Silwan in East Jerusalem.

Among those who protested at the destruction of the Muslim graves was Palestinian Jerusalemite Ola Nababteh, Um Alaa. She was recorded sobbing and clinging to her son's grave. "Over my dead body," she told Reuters. "My son's body will not be removed from here."

At least twenty Jordanian soldiers were buried in Al-Yusufiya after the 1967 Six Day War. In 2014, Israel banned Palestinians from being buried in the cemetery and levelled part of it later in the same year.

The UN classifies East Jerusalem as "occupied territory" and recognises Israel as the occupying power. The Fourth Geneva Convention (1949, Article 49) states: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." It also prohibits the "individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory." This has not stopped Israel from doing just that in its efforts to "Judaise" the city systematically.

The head of the Islamic Committee for the Preservation of Cemeteries in Jerusalem, Mustafa Abu Zahra, told MEMO that he presented the documents which prove the Muslim ownership of the cemetery to the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem Municipality, but the latter took no notice. "The Israeli authorities now close the gates of the cemetery and ban burials in it," he explained.

The Jordanian government reported the Israeli violations at the cemetery to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Jordan's tireless efforts were in vain, unfortunately. Israeli destruction of Muslim graveyards in Jerusalem is ongoing.

READ: Israel continues demolition of Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem

Not only has Al-Yusufiya cemetery been bulldozed, but other "minor cemeteries" located in the city have also been completely destroyed, reported Abu Zahra. "Now, only three Muslim cemeteries are yet to be closed or demolished: Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, Al-Mujahideen burial ground, and a section of Al-Yusufiya Cemetery."

Israeli has also confiscated 70 per cent of Mamilla Cemetery, which contains human remains from the early Islamic era and is located to the north west of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. An "Independence Park" has been built on the site by Israel.

According to Abu Zahra, the Israeli excavations of historic burial areas are part of the Judaisation plot to erase the Palestinian and Arab character of Jerusalem; Muslim cemeteries are a major target of this. "The gravestones highlight the city's Arab and Islamic history, as many Islamic figures were buried in these cemeteries. Israel plans to eradicate what is Islamic, Arab or Palestinian and replace everything with Jewish parks."

The only thing for Jerusalemites to do is to face the Israeli bulldozers head on, as Ola Nababta did a month ago at Al-Yusufiya. "In the meantime," said Abu Zahra, "our committee is urging the UN, UNESCO, and the Jordanian government to intervene to preserve the Islamic cultural heritage of Jerusalem." He stressed the fact that historic Muslim burial sites are part and parcel of this heritage.

READ: Israel installs CCTV at Palestinian cemetery it is razing

The UN has deplored the works carried out by the Israeli authorities at Muslim holy places and Arab archaeological sites in Jerusalem, describing them as a "grave derogation from the ecumenical vocation of the City". Israeli has continued such desecration regardless.

Such Israeli provocation in Jerusalem has fuelled tensions with the Palestinians. In May, Israeli threats to evict Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood prompted a fierce round of violence in the holy city and a major military confrontation in Gaza.

As the forcible destruction and annexation of Muslim cemeteries by Israel continues in Jerusalem, the crisis is escalating across Palestine. Israel should know that in doing so it is jeopardising the fragile relative calm in the region.

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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