It was as if Sami Hilmi of the Al-Aqsa Institute was waiting for a phone call. The scenes of destruction of the synagogues in Gush Katif had put Muslims in Israel on the defensive. On the physical defensive the police announced it was stepping up its security around the country's mosques for fear of Jewish attacks; and on the political defensive for years, Arab public leaders have spoken of the damage done to mosques and Muslim cemeteries in Israel. But now live on television a Palestinian crowd was inflicting damage on Jewish synagogues.
A few hours after my first request for information on the fate of abandoned mosques, Hilmi, a member of a non-profit group affiliated with the northern faction of the Islamic Movement which keeps track of abandoned mosques faxed over seven handwritten pages, which included two lists. One list, with 34 names, enumerates mosques that now serve a different purpose: most were turned into synagogues or museums, a few became residences or storerooms, at least two are cafes, and one became a cowshed.
The second list, 39 names, catalogs abandoned mosques to which access has been cut off. "A partial list," Hilmi wrote. He also noted that it did not take into account the mosques and Muslim houses of prayer destroyed since 1948.
How many were destroyed? Twelve hundred, Hilmi writes. Evidently, he is exaggerating the number, but clearly the real figure is in the hundreds, considering the fact that about 600 villages were expelled or chased off or abandoned in 1948.
An attempt to obtain official data proved fruitless. The Ministry of Religious Affairs was dismantled and transferred to the Prime Minister's Office. But sources in the Prime Minister's Office explained to me that responsibility for holy places has been assigned to the Interior Ministry. At the Interior Ministry, it was explained to me that responsibility had in fact been transferred to the Tourism Ministry, but it would be worthwhile asking at the Prime Minister's Office. By press time, the Prime Minister's Office had not gotten back to me. Based on a petition filed last year by Adalah the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, it emerges that there is no list in Israel of Muslim holy places. An official list of places that are holy to Jews, on the other hand, has existed since the 1970s at the Religious Affairs Ministry.
A short drive showed that Hilmi's list is indeed incomplete. Two mosques he listed in the central region have been converted into synagogues. We made our way to two other sites, both in Tel Aviv, through the Zochrot organization, a primarily Jewish group that promotes recognition of the Palestinian Nakba in Israeli society. These two sites one served as a youth club and subsequently, until its abandonment, as a stable; and the other serves as a synagogue do not appear on Hilmi's list.
The Wadi Hunayn mosque, now the Geulat Israel synagogue in Nes Tziona Until the War of Independence, Nes Tziona was a mixed Jewish-Arab settlement. An entry on the official Web site of the Nes Tziona local council, written by Avner Kahanov, whose name is signed to historic accounts on the site, states that the Arab neighborhood was built east of the main road (today's Weizmann Street), and by the 1930s had a population of 1,000. Kahanov notes that the Arabs settled there due to the colony's prosperity, and this is what led to the decision to build a mosque on the site. It was dedicated in 1934. "In Nes ziona, they understand the significance of these things, which commemorate the existence of the Arab community," writes Kahanov. "A mosque, minaret and muezzin, by the nature of things polarize relations."
The former mosque now serves as a Shas-affiliated synagogue. "The Geulat Israel synagogue, founded 5708 (1948)," reads a sign at the entrance. It is a large, handsome building with generous proportions. On one side is a well-tended garden, in the center of which is a artillery piece painted red and a monument to Nes Tziona residents who fell in the War of Independence; on the other side is the city's central bus station. It stands across from some non-descript shops in a small, old commercial center.
Based on its Oriental facade, it is no different from other buildings that were built in the same style in the colonies of that era, even in Tel Aviv. It is therefore difficult to notice it was originally a mosque. "Those who are not old-timers here don't know there used to be an Arab neighborhood here, and a mosque, which essentially threatened the existence of the colony," writes Kahanov. "The mosque was converted into a synagogue in which people pray for peace."
Kahanov mentions the mosque minaret, which no longer exists. One veteran Nes Tziona resident offers a simple explanation to this mystery. "On May 15, 1948," he recounts, "the entire colony gathered around the mosque. On the following evening, the Arabs disappeared from the center of the colony. We got up in the morning and they had left without a trace. We stood around the mosque, a few Palmachniks climbed up to the minaret, tied a rope around it, gave a vocal 'heave-ho,' and the minaret fell down." The man, who is well-known in Nes Tziona, says even then he felt shame at what he saw. But he is not prepared to speak out. The sensitivity is still too great.
The Yazuri mosque, now the Shaarei Zion synagogue in Azur Anyone driving along the old road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is familiar with the multidomed building alongside the highway at the entrance to Azur, across from the Holon industrial zone. The small building is now hidden behind an acoustic wall that runs between the southern buildings of Azur and the highway, but the unique building still stands out.
The official Web site of the Azur local council, as well as the entry under "Yazur" (the Arab name) on the site palestineremembered.com (a Palestinian Web site dedicated to the history of the Nakba), more or less agree on the history of the building: an ancient Christian church on which a mosque was built sometime in the 12th century. On the other hand, the Azur Web site writes that the church was preceded by a synagogue. The Palestinians make no such mention. But both sites do agree that after 1948, the site was converted into a synagogue.
Shaarei Zion is the contemporary name of the synagogue. A sign on the front door invites the worshipers to attend midnight prayers prior to Rosh Hashanah. The walls of the building have been fixed up, but a closer look at the forest of domes on the roof reveals a Mameluke style, similar to that of many buildings in Jerusalem's Old City. "Seven domes symbolize fertility, against nine months of pregnancy," states Azur's site. The site's entry for "Yazur" does not relate to the history of the mosque, but does mention the Jewish "terror attack" against a local coffee house in December 1947, in which seven Palestinians were killed. It is practically a mirror image of the Israeli memory: Seven watchmen were killed in early 1948 at the entrance to the village, for whom Moshav Mishmar Hashiva was named. The intersection also received its name from this incident.
The (approximately 4,000) residents of Yazur fled from the borders of the state. In Jaffa, as well, no one could be found who knew very much about the fate of Yazur. The Palestinian site did happen to mention that Ahmed Jibril, a rejectionist leader and the head of the Popular Front, General Command," was born there. Did he perhaps pray at the domed mosque-synagogue?
>b>Salama mosque, today an abandoned building in Kfar Shalem, in South Tel Aviv The center of Kfar Shalem, once a poor Tel Aviv neighborhood, and once the Arab village of Salama, looks very green now. A small park, and next to it another not so small garden. Until the 1980s, Jewish residents of the neighborhood say, this area was home to the original, densely constructed Arab homes, in which Jewish residents lived. Some were refugees from the battles in Manshiyya, an Arab-Jewish neighborhood along the Jaffa-Tel Aviv border. It looked like a casbah, says one young man who grew up in the neighborhood, with nostalgia.
The residents remember the big building that was surrounded by a wall, which now faces the new park. It is the mosque of the original Salama. They also remember that until the mid-1980s it served as a youth club. "We used to come here after school. We'd study and we'd play," recalls the young man. The prayer hall was partitioned into rooms, and they would play soccer in the fenced-off courtyard. Everyone knew it was a mosque, he says, and it seemed quite natural to us. Now he is trying to research the past, but is still not prepared to reveal his name. It's too sensitive, he says. The sentiment is reinforced a few minutes later. An older man watches us walking around the yard of the mosque, taking photos. Who are you, he wants to know. I thought you were sent by Sheikh Raed Salah, he says. I was just about to kick you out.
The club was closed in the mid-1980s. For a few years, the former mosque became a stable. The steel doors at the entrance to the prayer hall and the dry horse droppings on the floor testify to this not-so-distant past. Today the building is deserted.
One former resident of Salama who now lives in Lod occasionally cleans up the building. Ali Yatim, a resident of Jaffa whose parents were born in Salama, says all of their attempts to retrieve possession of the mosque have failed. The young man says the municipality is planning to convert the entire area into a large park, destroy those buildings that still remain, leaving only the mosque at the center of the park. An architectural relict.
Prayer house in Sumayil, today the Sulam Yaakov synagogue in North Tel Aviv Veteran Tel Avivians are familiar with the name Sumayil. Once there were a few dozen homes, but now only a handful of them remain, to the north and to the south of the Shekem building on Ibn Gvirol. The Web site "palestineremembered.com" states the accepted Arab name of the site is Masudiya but no one in Tel Aviv seems to be familiar with this name.
Michael Jacobson, an architecture student at Bezalel, wrote a paper about the site. He found that Sumayil was built sometime in the mid-19th century by Bedouin migrants from northern Sinai, that the village was annexed to Tel Aviv in the 1930s, that Jews began renting homes there from the Palestinian owners before 1948. By the outbreak of the war, there were quite a few Jewish residents. Jacobson even interviewed a few of them.
Sumayil, says Jacobson, was a ramshackle village. It did not really have a mosque. Only a house of prayer four walls and a roof, without a minaret or dome. The Jews who moved into the homes of the village right after the Arab residents left (according to eyewitness accounts that he gathered, the Haganah [pre-independence army of Palestine's Jews] commander assured residents they would be back within two weeks) converted this house of prayer into a synagogue. In Jacobson's opinion, this was a beautiful act, an act or preservation. The substance of the site was preserved. Jacobson would like to preserve what remains of the village on behalf of the Jewish residents living there, and not in order to bring back the original residents.
Sami Abu-Shehada, a political activist from Jaffa, disagrees with Jacobson. In his opinion, the mosques should have been preserved as is converting them into cafes or synagogues is the same thing. But whatever Israel did to mosques, says Abu Shehada, does not justify what the Palestinians did to the synagogues in Gush Katif. Sheikh Ahmed Abu Ajawa, another resident of Jaffa, voices the same sentiments. You have to look at what was done to mosques in Israel since 1948, you have to remember that the synagogues in Gush Katif "were built on occupied land," and nevertheless, it was forbidden to burn them.