Palestinian and international human rights activists on Wednesday petitioned the United Nations to stop the construction of a Museum of Tolerance on the site of a medieval Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem, saying it would disturb centuries-old graves.
Campaigners said they were turning to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights after Israel's Supreme Court rejected a 2008 appeal to stop the Simon Wiesenthal Center building its museum on part of the Mamilla cemetery.
"We have nowhere else to go," Rania Madi of the Palestinian rights group BADIL told reporters in Geneva, where the petition was filed. Any response from the UN's top rights official would carry only moral weight and is not legally binding.
The group said construction of the museum would violate Muslim religious and cultural rights, and such a project would never have been undertaken if the site was home to Jewish graves.
The petition is signed by about 60 people who say their relatives are buried in the cemetery. Palestinians say people were laid to rest there as early as the 14th century and until the 1930's.
At a news conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday to coincide with the filing of the petition, local resident Jamal Nusseibeh said his extensive family is buried at the site. "We have been fighting for this for years to preserve these graves. It's a chain that goes back to 1432 when my ancestor was buried there and it is part of the rich fabric of Jerusalem that is a symbol of tolerance," he said. "So why destroy this to build a museum of tolerance?"
The Simon Wiesenthal Center denied any graves would be disturbed, claiming that construction would occur only in an area of the cemetery that has been a parking lot for 50 years. Israel's Supreme Court judges said in their ruling that they would not block the museum since no objections were lodged in 1960 when the parking lot was built.
"There are no tombstones, no monuments, that were ever on this site for half a century or more, because it was the car park of Jerusalem," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
"You can appeal to the moon, it isn't going to help you," he told The Associated Press from Los Angeles. "We're going forward. The case is over."
The museum will be modeled on an existing one in Los Angeles that opened in 1993 and receives over 250,000 visits a year.
"Exhibits will focus on the twin themes of mutual respect and social responsibility and impress on visitors the need for tolerance toward all religions and nationalities," Hier said. It is scheduled to have a conference center, theater and museums for both adults and children.
Yael Lerer, an Israeli activist who opposes the project, said it was a very strange joke to build a museum of tolerance on top of a cemetery.
"The international community, if it wants, can stop this easily," she said in Geneva.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the case was being used for propaganda purposes by Palestinians who refused to accept the Supreme Court's ruling.
The activists have rejected proposals to either remove the deceased for reburial or install a barrier between the graves and a future building foundation to avoid disturbing the remains. They insist the museum should be relocated instead.
Standing beside graves in various state of disrepair adjacent to a cordoned off area where the museum is being built, Dyala Husseini Dajani, 68, said her parents would take her there as a young girl to visit her ancestors. She said her grandparents, aunts and uncles were buried there. "These bones represent our history here in this part of the world," she said.
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