Arab Israeli activists protest an upcoming wine festival to be held in a mosque courtyard
Arab Israeli activists protest holding the wine festival in the courtyard of Be'er Sheva's oldest mosque. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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Negev Muslims dropped their opposition to this evening's wine festival in Be'er Sheva after the city's mayor announced that winemakers would exhibit their wares outside the perimeters of Be'er Sheva's historic Great Mosque.

The mosque has been off-limits to worshippers for decades and now serves as an archaeological museum - a sore point for area Muslims that was exacerbated by the city's plans to hold a wine festival in the mosque's courtyard, as Islam prohibits the drinking of alcohol. Mass protests outside the mosque had been planned, but were called off after Mayor Ruvik Danilovich's announcement that the festival, which will take place tonight and tomorrow night as planned, would be moved out of the mosque's immediate vicinity.

Earlier this week, President Shimon Peres phoned Danilovich and asked him "to see how he [the mayor] might allay concerns of interested parties." Following this discussion, Danilovich spoke with people involved in the festival and decided that for the sake of neighborly relations with the Muslim community, it was best to relocate the wine displays.

Rahat Mayor Sheikh Faiz Abu Sahiban, a member of Israel's Islamic Movement, said: "We are pleased that Be'er Sheva's mayor decided to bring the wine out of the mosque courtyard. We think that this decision helps build trust between Jews and Muslims in the south. ... We call on him to continue with his good work, and open the mosque to evening prayers."

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee decided to cancel a rally planned for Thursday. The committee said it would send "observers" to see if the Be'er Sheva municipality followed through on its promises. Adalah - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel described Danilovich's decision as a welcome step. Adalah also stressed the need for a place of Muslim worship in Be'er Sheva, the Negev's unofficial capital.