Bedouin Village Petitions Israel's Top Court Against Construction on Muslim Cemetery

Work on water storage tank was halted, but is about to restart after residents rejected plan to move the graves

The area where Mekorot is planning to build a water storage tank in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Hashem Zana, southern Israel, August 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The residents of an unrecognized Bedouin village in southern Israel are fighting the Mekorot national water company’s plans to build a large water storage tank on a Muslim cemetery in the village.

Mekorot recently announced that it would begin construction of the water tank as planned after the residents of Hashem Zana, east of Be’er Sheva, rejected a proposal to move the graves. In response, the residents petitioned the High Court of Justice to stop the construction.

The battle began in 2017 when Mekorot announced its plan to build the tank on a land that is the property of the al-Ethman family. The project was halted shortly after its inception when a concrete structure identified as a grave was discovered at the site, alongside several piles of stones.

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The planning authorities were aware of the existence of the graves, as it was mentioned in an objection to the general outline for the region submitted to the National Planning and Building Council in 2007 by Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights, an Israeli NGO.

Residents said the cemetery was in use from before Israel's founding in 1948 until the early 1990s, when residents began burying their relatives in an alternative graveyard.

Rajeh Ibrahim al-Ethman, whose father is buried in the old cemetery, said the hill where the cemetery is located is particularly important in the Bedouin tradition because a saint named Hashem Zana is buried there. 

Al-Ethman said his father was the last person interred in the graveyard.

Dr. Kayed al-Ethman is a physician at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, the head of the local council in Hashem Zana and one of those petitioning the court against the construction. He said that in 2017 "a person came and informed us of the plans, adding he understood the sensitivity of the matter in light of the fact that our grandfather is buried here. We refused and that was that.”

Later the area was fenced off and Mekorot posted signs offering to help residents move the graves. Attempts at dialogue were unproductive and no work has been carried out.

Residents say the Bedouin Development and Settlement Authority in the Negev was involved in the talks between the residents and Mekorot. Authority representatives said that the qadi [an Islamic religious court judge] of the Sharia Court in Be’er Sheva ruled there was no religious obstacle to moving the graves.

But the Sharia courts said in a statement that neither a Sharia court nor a qadi had issued any ruling concerning the cemetery. In addition, the statement stressed that "according to Sharia law, harming graves in a Muslim cemetery is categorically forbidden forever and until the Day of Judgment.”

The Bedouin Development and Settlement Authority told Haaretz that Qadi Dugan al-Atawneh said that there are no documents attesting to the existence of the cemetery at the site in question nor is there a religious reason the graves cannot be moved, as was done in other cases.

Al-Atawneh, who has since retired, told Haaretz that the authority’s claims are false and denied ever speaking with its representatives. "It never happened and moving the graves violated Sharia law," he said.

The residents said they were informed in June that the construction works were about to begin. “A policeman told us that Mekorot planned to begin the demolition [of the cemetery] and that we have to be ready,” said one of the residents.

The residents protested the move and filed a petition against it to the High Court at the beginning of August. Salam al-Ethman, whose grandfather is buried in the cemetery, said the residents do not object to building a water tank, but ask that it be built on a nearby hill, which professionals say is just as suitable as the designated site. “We will be willing to cooperate in any way, just leave the graves alone,” he said.

Last week, residents wanted to set up a protest tent in front of the cemetery, but the police said they need a permit to do so, which they say is an illegal demand.

The police told Haaretz that since the matter is being discussed in court, it should be resolved there. “Nevertheless, the Israel Police will allow freedom of expression and protest, as long as they don't breach the law or harm the normal fabric of life.”

Mekorot said the construction of the water tank is intended to increase the reliability of the water supply to the residents of the area, including the residents of the local unrecognized Bedouin encampments, due to a growing demand for water in the region.

“Mekorot operates according to the law and building permits. Until recently, no inquiries were received from the residents concerning the graves. Moreover, the area in question is slated for construction, and any other infrastructure established there is illegal,” the company said.

Mekorot said that its inquiry with the Bedouin Development and Settlement Authority showed no official or known cemetery in the area. “The location of the water tank cannot be moved, and building it in the present location is necessary and urgent,” Mekorot said.

The company added it is carrying out the work with great sensitivity, and has offered many times to investigate the area and move discovered graves if needed.

The authority said it is not officially involved in the matter. "Our representative spoke the qadi as a “goodwill gesture and in an attempt to help in the dialogue between the residents and Mekorot,” said the authority. In addition, the authority said that older aerial photos of the location show no signs of a cemetery existing there.