The Tel Aviv-Jaffa planning and building committee has given its approval to a plan to legalize the Tasso Muslim cemetery in Jaffa, the only Muslim cemetery in the city. The decision, which was issued Wednesday, comes at a time of increased mistrust of the authorities among Arab residents of Jaffa and Jewish-Arab tensions there against the backdrop of this month’s military confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The zoning plan requires the approval of the district planning and building committee before it can take effect.
The Muslim community in Jaffa began burying their dead in the Tasso cemetery in the 1940s. In 1950, two years after Israel’s establishment, the cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa were merged to create the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality. In the 1970s, the state-appointed board of trustees of the Waqf Muslim religious trust in Jaffa sold half of the land, which contained no graves, to private developers. Many residents of Jaffa opposed the sale, but acknowledged that they had found out about it late in the process.
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In protest of the plan, Jaffa residents began burying loved ones on the portion of the site that was slated for residential development. Residents then claimed that the project would require relocation of graves and the allocation of land for an alternative cemetery.
In 2008, after eight years of legal proceedings challenging the sale, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it could proceed. A year later, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, the Israel Land Authority and the Jaffa Muslim Council developed a compromise plan giving the developer construction rights at a nearby site. Last year, some 25 years after the board of trustees of the Waqf dissolved itself, a new board was appointed and one of its tasks was to settle the legal status of the Tasso cemetery.
On May 12, two days after riots broke out around the country between Arabs and Jews in cities with mixed Arab-Jewish populations, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality submitted the rezoning plans for the cemetery land to a local planning and building committee subcommittee. In a statement, the municipality called the rezoning for use as a cemetery “a historic and significant step for the Arab community in Jaffa.”
The step follows other recent decisions by municipal officials to ease the housing problems of Jaffa’s Arabs as well as public condemnation by Mayor Ron Huldai of police actions in Jaffa.
For the time being, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Waqf is taking a wait-and-see attitude, saying that it would take time until the cemetery is officially rezoned and that the situation there could not be divorced from other conditions in Jaffa and elsewhere around the country. Mohammed Edrei, a lawyer who chairs the Waqf, told Haaretz that the decision could not yet be called “historic.” District planners still had to approve it, as did the Waqf itself. If the city refused to accept the Waqf’s demands, a battle would ensue, he warned.
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Sources at the Waqf said that it is still facing a civil suit filed by the developer, demanding a use fee from the cemetery. A comprehensive solution is necessary, they said.
“For years, the municipality failed to advance the original plan, which was formulated without involving the real representatives of the Muslim community in the city – the Muslim council and the Waqf,” Edrei said, “until the change in direction that the Waqf created, including a change in the original plan [to meet] the Muslim community’s genuine needs, its significant expansion and the inclusion of assurances regarding the return of the land to the Waqf.”
Prof. Daniel Monterescu, the author of the book “Jaffa Shared and Shattered,” told Haaretz that dealings with the Waqf opened a Pandora’s Box dating back to the War of Independence in 1948.
“Tasso is a disgraceful example of the way the authorities have used the dirtiest tools and the most problematic politics and linked up with the corruption that prevailed among the historic representation of the Muslim community in Jaffa,” he said, referring to the initial agreement of government-appointed members of the Waqf’s board of trustees to sell of a portion of the cemetery’s land to the developer.
“It was the appointment of ‘yes men,’ which was a manipulation by the Shin Bet [security service] and the government authorities to take advantage and deepen the corruption among those who purportedly represented the community’s interests,” Monterescu added. “This led to a crossing of red lines and murder. The issue is one of three reasons that have brought the Arabs of Jaffa out onto the streets in an organized fashion in recent years,” he noted, the other two being police violence and housing.
But for his part, former Tel Aviv-Jaffa Councilman Ahmad Masharawi, who had been prominently involved in the cemetery controversy, said he welcomed the local planning committee’s decision. “This is an important and very positive step that will contribute a great deal, particularly at this time, in restoring confidence in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality and the Israel Land Authority,” he said.
“Tasso was one of the most difficult battles waged by the Muslim community for over 30 years. There is no doubt that all of those involved, including the Muslims, made major mistakes and now finally our dead can rest in peace. The mayor deserves praise for the recent and decisive effort that he led to [obtain approval] for the plan that he proposed,” Masharawi added.