Will Be'er Sheva Allow Muslims to Use City's Only Mosque?

Arab rights center petitions city to allow mosque to reopen, over sixty years after it was closed.

The Supreme Court will discuss on Wednesday a petition to reopen Be'er Sheva's only mosque for prayer.

The city government has opposed the plan to reopen the mosque, which was the central house of worship for the city's Muslims until the War of Independence in 1948.

The petition was presented in 2002 by the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the Association to Aid and Protect the Rights of Bedouins in Israel. The two organizations demanded that the mosque be opened for Muslims because it was the only public building in the city that had previously been used for a Muslim house of worship.

The mosque in Be'er Sheva became state property after the Palestinian residents of the city left during the War of Independence, as did many other mosques throughout Israel after the war.

The Be'er Sheva government said this week that the mosque was used until 1953 as the city's courthouse. From that year until the start of the 1990s when it was closed for renovations, the building housed an archeological museum. The city now intends to use the building as the archeological branch of the Negev Museum, as part of the 13 dunams of city property designated for museum space.

Lawyer Adal Badir, representing Adalah, argued this week to the Supreme Court that if the building is not allowed to be used as a mosque it would harm the rights of Muslims and all Arab citizens of Israel.

"The long and special history of the mosque makes it a holy place to Muslims and a cultural symbol to all Arab citizens?this matter also touches on the cultural rights of Israel's minorities, because there is no culture without history and there is no culture without symbols," the petition reads.

The city of Be'er Sheva says that after the petition was presented, a committee of inquiry was appointed by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. The committee heard from the petitioners, the city, and other bodies and decided not to turn the building into an operational mosque. The committee also decided to give city authorities permission to use the facility as they see fit.