Negev Muslims Incensed Over Plans for Wine Festival Near Be'er Sheva Mosque

Religious leaders call for mass prayers to protest plans to hold event in city's historic Great Mosque.

Negev Muslim leaders are calling for mass prayers of protest in the coming days at Be'er Sheva's historic Great Mosque to protest the city's plans to hold a wine festival in a courtyard nearby. The issue of the festival, to be held early next month, is due to be raised Wednesday in sermons in mosques all over the Negev.

Local Muslims claim that holding the festival in the courtyard of the city's largest mosque, which now serves as an archaeological museum, is an insult. The municipality rejects these arguments, noting that the festival is taking place in a courtyard near, but not belonging to, the mosque, and that this is the sixth year in which the event is being held.

The pressure being applied by Arab activists against the festival has reached as far as the Turkish embassy in Israel. Yesterday the site was visited by Turkey's deputy ambassador to Israel, Dogan Isik, who took a close look at the historic mosque and at the courtyard where the festival is scheduled to take place. Isik refused to discuss the subject, but emphasized to his escorts that he intends to send a report to his government in Ankara.

Thabet Abu Ras, director of the southern branch of Adalah - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, who accompanied Isik, said that in Turkey people take a great interest in historical sites in Israel, mainly those built during the Ottoman period.

Be'er Sheva's Great Mosque was built in 1907 and is considered to be of historical, religious and cultural value to Israel's Arab population, said Abu Ras. He said Isik told him that Turkey held contacts with Israel in the past regarding Ottoman-era sites and the need to preserve them, and promised to send a message to his government so that it would work with official groups in Israel to prevent damage to the sanctity of the mosque.

The chairman of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, Sheikh Hamad Abu Dabas, said the movement will submit a court petition against the festival in the next few days.

Adalah turned recently to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and demanded his intervention, claiming that the use of the mosque courtyard for festivals and parties like the wine festival and "Monday in the Museum" parties constitute a continuous offense to local Muslim residents, Bedouins in particular.

In 2002 petitioners asked the High Court of Justice to order the Be'er Sheva municipality to let city residents and Muslim visitors pray in the Great Mosque. The High Court handed down its decision only last year, prohibiting prayers on the site but ruling that the building be designated as a museum of Islamic culture.

Nissim Sasportas, CEO of Kivunim, which is producing the festival, says the activity would not take place inside the museum, but in the courtyard between it and the Negev Museum.

"The festival has been held for six years in the same place. We do not intend to change its location, it will be held in the courtyard between the two museums and the company will not be dragged into provocations," said Sasportas.

The Be'er Sheva municipality said: "In total contrast to the claim of the opponents, the wine festival takes place in the square next to the archaeological museum [the Great Mosque] and this is a festival that has become a tradition that the municipality sponsors through Kivunim, and that is taking place for the sixth consecutive year. All these years the event passed with exemplary quiet and without any disturbance, and needless to say, without complaints. Therefore it's not clear why the complaints are being made now."