In Jaffa, a War Wages Over Graves

Protests and demonstrations continue to disrupt the peace and quiet of Jaffa. In addition to the ongoing protests against the local authority's lack of assistance in solving the housing problems, for the first time Arab organizations will be holding a Land Day demonstration along the city's streets this Friday. Jaffa's residents, who initiated this procession on the day Arabs protest discrimination against them, say one of the reasons for this event is their fear of a housing complex being built on part of the city's only Muslim cemetery. The plans to build on the cemetery, say Jaffa's residents, are grounds for a struggle.

This past January, the Supreme Court approved the sale of half the land in the Tasso Cemetery to private developers, thus ending a 35-year-long legal saga. According to Jaffa's residents, building a neighborhood on cemetery land will require the relocation of hundreds of graves and the allocation of an alternative burial site.

The committee assembled by Jaffa's Arab residents decided on the protest march last week, as the first stage in their struggle against construction on the cemetery. Ahmed Masharawi, a committee activist whose father and grandfather are buried in the cemetery, sent a letter to Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai warning that the objections this time would be stronger than on previous occasions when Muslim property had been sold.

"This concerns the disinterring of bodies buried there, including in recent years," wrote Masharawi. "There is not a Muslim in Jaffa who does not have relatives buried in that cemetery. The court's decision is like a declaration of war on the city's Muslim residents."

The cemetery, which borders on the Abu Kabir detention facility, covers about 80 dunams, or 20 acres. In the late 19th century, the Armenian Tasso family sold the land to Jaffa's Abu Hadera family, which donated it to the Waqf (custodian of Muslim holy sites) in the 1940s, for public purposes. In 1943, half of the Tasso compound was turned into a cemetery.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, the government transferred the responsibility for the compound to a board of trustees composed of Muslim residents of Jaffa, which managed the Waqf properties.

In 1973, the board sold the other half of the Tasso compound - the subject of the current controversy - to Yossi Investment Company, owned by businessman Yossi Hasson. At the time of the sale, that area was not being used for burials, but Jaffa's Arabs viewed it as a future expansion site for the cemetery.

Leaders of today's struggle relate that the residents learned of the sale of the land only in 1977, and immediately began pushing for its cancellation. Then, as now, those who object to the sale contend that the board of trustees was appointed by the government, and its functioning was problematic and contradicted the good of the local population.

To protest the deal, Jaffa's Muslim residents began burying some of their dead in the sold section of the compound starting in July 1977.

"The residents were quite surprised by that first family's daring," says Masharawi. "Everyone was anxious, but the grave was not removed. That action bolstered the determination of the public struggle. Many more graves were added to the site. People knew they were not going to give in. We felt it was a life-and-death struggle."

In 1978, the government appointed a new board of trustees, which petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court to cancel the sale of the land. That petition was denied in 1991, on the grounds that the deal had been transacted legally, and approved by the sharia Muslim religious court in Jaffa and the prime minister's advisor on Arab affairs. In 1996, as in January of this year, the Supreme Court rejected appeals filed by the board of trustees against their petition's denial.

Not convinced

All this, however, has not convinced leaders of Jaffa's Arabs, whose initial protest moves include a directive that all the local Arab residents bury their dead only in the sold section. The cemetery should be left intact, say the Arab residents, and the state should compensate the buyers - Hasson and two other businessmen, Ezra Hamami and Dan Abbas - with money or other land.

The imam of Jaffa, Sheikh Bassam Abu Ziyad, claims that the government is responsible for finding a solution.

"The population of Jaffa was not a party to the deal and therefore we did not recognize it and buried our dead there," said Abu Zayid. "If the government wants the situation in Jaffa to calm down and the sanctity of the site to be preserved, the government must compensate the developers. I am trying to calm the residents. I told them, 'Let's use legal channels,' but they are not calming down."

Attorney David Shidlover, who represents Hasson, says that the three developers are planning to build a residential neighborhood on the site, that the local residents know this and are continuing to bury their dead there to "prevent the fulfillment of the contract." Shidlover contends that the relocation of the graves is the responsibility of the board of trustees, which today consists of government clerks. Still, Shidlover notes that considering the "explosive situation," it would be preferable for the government to compensate the developers.

The Ministry of Religious Services responded that this issue is the responsibility of the religious communities department at the Interior Ministry. That ministry, however, claims that the religious communities department, which is indeed responsible for establishing Muslim cemeteries, "is not a party to this matter."

The activists in Jaffa say they expect the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality to offer the developers a land-exchange deal, for the good of Jaffa's residents. The municipality, however, claims it is not a party to the transaction, but according to municipal records, the site is designated as a cemetery, "and we have no information of the owners' plans for the site." The municipality also stated that the legal aspects of this matter will be examined and the relevant national government authorities consulted, as necessary.