Even the Dead and Buried Enter the Conflict

The Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem and the Muslim cemetery in Mamilla show how the battle for the city goes beyond the grave

Jerusalem and its dead are unlucky. The large and ancient Jewish cemetery lies on the Mount of Olives in a Muslim neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and the large and ancient Muslim cemetery stands in the Western part of the city, in the Jewish Mamilla area.

Until the Six-Day War, both cemeteries were neglected, the Jewish cemetery by Jordan and the Arab cemetery by Israel. In the past 40 years, the Mount of Olives has again functioned as a burial place and has even experienced something of a boom, thanks to the Ir David Foundation, or Elad, which works to strengthen the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, especially the biblical City of David. It has digitally mapped graves, enabling families to locate their dear ones after many decades. As for the Mamilla cemetery, the municipality has started to fence and clean up the place.

Mount of Olives - Tomer Appelbaum
Tomer Appelbaum

Workers have been coming to the two cemeteries to restore graves and tombstones. On the Mount of Olives, this involves a government plan of November 2009, so funding comes from the Prime Minister's Office through the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Sephardic Hevra Kadisha, or burial association. In Mamilla, the workers are sent by the Islamic Movement through its subsidiary, the Al Aqsa Institution.

At both cemeteries graves have been destroyed with malicious intent or by time and have undergone restoration with an attempt to incorporate the old stones. Often, the restorers do not know the exact location of a grave, so the result is not a real grave but a kind of cemetery stage setting. No one can guarantee that under a given tombstone lie the bones of the person named on the tombstone, or even any bones at all.

Both communities speak of restoration and not new burials. Yossi Gil of the Hevra Kadisha, says graves are located according to lists kept by Jerusalem's gravediggers and that with the computerized mapping, every grave will receive its rightful tombstone. Mohammed Aghbaria, a lawyer representing the Islamic Movement, says that often a circle of stones or a base remains from a grave. Where grave markings are not found on the ground, workers have dug a few centimeters down to find the stone sealing the grave and set up the tombstone accordingly. A grave in which it is not known who is buried there is left without an inscription.

While the work on the Mount of Olives is proceeding unhindered, Israel Lands Administration bulldozers have destroyed 150 to 400 (it depends on whom you ask ) gravestones set up by the Islamic Movement. Last Tuesday an Islamic Movement activist who tried to block a bulldozer was injured. The movement turned to the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court for a restraining order to halt the destruction. The request was rejected, but the judge subsequently issued an order prohibiting harm to ancient graves and ordered work to be coordinated with the Antiquities Authority and representatives of the Islamic Movement.

Aghbaria says grave restoration within an area defined as a cemetery does not require a building permit, and the work is legal. "I have no doubt that if some other organization were involved, and not the Islamic Movement, they would be relating to this differently," he says. "For them, [Islamic Movement leader] Raad Salah is bin Laden."

The Mamilla cemetery has seen numerous disputes, such as the construction of the Museum of Tolerance on part of it. The next battle is around the corner. It concerns the building of a court building where the Experimental School now stands and under which skeletons are still buried.

There's a contradiction between the bulldozers in western Jerusalem and the activities in the eastern part. Shlomo Hen, head of the ILA's supervision department, rejects the Islamic Movement's claims of new tombstones for old graves. "I have aerial photographs showing there were no graves here during past decades," he says. The Islamic Movement workers, he says, have also dismantled ancient, non-Muslim gravestones to build the new graves. "In two cases we even found graves with a star of David on them," says Hen, adding that "they set up graves on sewage line manholes, so it's certain there are no graves below."

The Jerusalem Municipality responded: "The area is owned by the Israel Lands Authority. A month ago the municipality approved the carrying out of work to clean and restore existing graves. Elements from the Islamic Movement have exploited the municipal permit and have begun to set up fictive graves on the site to take control of the area of Independence Park. About a week ago, the municipality filed a complaint with the police about the work and has stopped the work. It should be stressed that no graves have been removed but only fictive tombstones. The work has been carried out under the supervision of the Antiquities Authority and only new tombstones have been removed."