Israeli Court Freezes Construction on Jaffa Muslim Cemetery After Days of Protests

Clashes erupt again as judge rules construction will be halted until the court hears the petition filed by the Islamic Council

Bar Peleg
Jack Khoury
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Jaffa residents protesting the construction of a homeless shelter on a Muslim burial ground as security forces surround the area, June 17, 2020.
Jaffa residents protesting the construction of a homeless shelter on a Muslim burial ground as security forces surround the area, June 17, 2020.Credit: Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Jack Khoury

An Israeli court issued an interim injunction on Wednesday, freezing construction of a homeless shelter on the grounds of a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa.

The last week has seen violent protests by Jaffa residents against the Tel Aviv Municipality's decision to allow the demolition of an 18th-century Muslim burial ground.

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Protesters calling to protect the al-Is'af cemetery have been taking to the streets. 

Tel Aviv District Court Judge Limor Bibi ruled that construction would be halted until the court hears the petition filed by the Islamic Council, a welfare organization that represents some 7,000 people involved in the demonstrations, claiming the municipality’s construction permit has expired. The hearing is slated for July.

Drone footage of shows the al-Is'af burial ground in Jaffa.
Drone footage of shows the al-Is'af burial ground in Jaffa.

The burial ground was discovered after plans had been made to build a new homeless shelter and commercial space on the site. Earlier this week, the municipality began operating there after the Tel Aviv District Court approved the move.

Jaffa protests

Jaffa residents and Islamic Council members arrived at the site on Wednesday to present the interim order and demand that construction be halted. Violent clashes with security forces ensued, and two religious leaders, as well as Mohammad Edrei, the chairman of a board of trustees for the Muslim charitable trust properties, were arrested. One of the people arrested required medical attention. 

Police forces also used stun grenades to disperse the protesters.   

“Respect the law, we want to see that the cemetery is empty and that not a single bulldozer is left. If you respect the law, let us enter the site,” Edrei told police forces who were securing the site and preventing protesters from entering it. 

Police forces securing Muslim burial ground in Jaffa, June 17, 2020.
Police forces securing Muslim burial ground in Jaffa, June 17, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

Tarek Ashkar, the chairman of Jaffa's Muslim Council, told Haaretz that “The police don’t respect court orders. Police officers armed with automatic weapons arrived here and started throwing stun grenades at us. We demand that they immediately release our representatives. I begged them not to make a wrong decision that would cause mayhem. We are 50 people standing up against 300 police officers and we won’t move from here until our representatives are released.”

The police said that several people protesting the construction were arrested, adding they were ”causing disturbances and trying to forcefully enter the construction site while hurling stones and using tear gas against police officers."

The Tel Aviv Municipality issued a statement stating that “The court has ordered the halt of construction amid claims that the construction permit had expired and hasn’t been renewed yet. This claim will be looked into. As always, the municipality is acting in accordance with court orders, and therefore has frozen construction until the matter is settled.”

Haaretz has learned that although the municipality had claimed that an external donor is funding the construction, the donor decided to withdraw their money from the project in April of 2019 – a year after construction was underway – and that now the works are being solely funded by the municipality. The Muslim Council says they exerted heavy pressure on the donor to abandon the project.

On Friday afternoon, hundreds of people, led by Jaffa's Muslim community, protested across the city. They stepped up protests throughout the night, torching some 10 garbage cans, several trees in two parks, two cars and a truck. One of the demonstrators threw an improvised firebomb at a building that belongs to the municipality, causing mild damage to the building, according to the municipality, which classified such acts as rioting.

Two teenagers, one 15 and the other 13, were detained on Saturday overnight on suspicion of burning a garbage can and of possession of dangerous materials.

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