Residents of Jaffa are up in arms about the fate of the Tasso Cemetery, the only Muslim cemetery in Tel Aviv-Jaffa still in use today. Two months ago, the owners of the cemetery’s eastern section filed two lawsuits demanding immediate cessation of burials there, the removal of hundreds of existing graves, and a fine of 15 million shekels ($4.3 million) for usage of the land in recent years. The owners are an Israeli investment company that purchased the land in 1973, plus two additional Israeli businessmen; the defendants are the cemetery’s state-appointed board of trustees.
A hearing in the first case, which took place recently at the Tel Aviv District Court, was halted when dozens of Jaffa residents – who had been urged by activists to protest – came into the courtroom and began chanting. The hearing is set to resume next week and the Jaffans plan to continue their protest.
The inhabitants note that they have meanwhile posted a guard in the cemetery, for fear of desecration of the graves, and that security cameras are soon to be installed there as well.
But ironically, the local Arab residents themselves are not a party to the suits. Their interests are being represented by the body that originally sold the property: the Israeli government-appointed board of trustees of the local branch of the Islamic Waqf (religious trust).
“The board’s role is to protect us, but from the Jaffans’ point, of view it’s against us,” says Mustafa Seif, from the Popular Committee for the Defense of Tasso Cemetery.
In the wake of Israel’s establishment 70 years ago, Muslim public properties – including mosques, cemeteries and other assets – were expropriated by the state. Under the Absentees Property Law (a series of measures that allowed the state to expropriate land and homes abandoned by Palestinians who were displaced during the 1948 war), properties in mixed cities such as Jaffa and Haifa were placed under the management of a government-appointed board in each locality. (Most Christian properties, in contrast, remained in the possession of the churches.)
Although nominally, the boards were supposed to operate on behalf of local Muslims and in the past have included Muslim members – the one in Jaffa has frequently been accused of corruption and lack of transparency by Jaffa's Muslim community. And even though, according to the law, money from the sales of Waqf property has to be invested in the Muslim community, residents say they do not know where the money from the deals ended up.
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An incident that might exemplify the controversy regarding the Jaffa board's role occurred in 1988, when the Muslim who headed it was murdered, presumably due to his involvement in the sale of the Waqf's properties.
And so, even if it is the current owners who are demanding the reinterment of those buried in the eastern part of Tasso – the anger of local residents is mostly aimed at the board.
The appointment of boards of trustees that was initiated after the creation of the state "was done to uproot the local [Arab] population,” says Seif. “We say no to the system of mukhtars [headmen], through which the state appoints people that we didn't elect to manage our properties.”
In 1973, the board of trustees sold 41 dunams (10.25 acres) of the Tasso Cemetery – about half its total area – to a company called Yossi Investments, which bought the land with the intention of developing it. The deal was controversial from the moment it was signed and thus almost immediately, a legal campaign was launched by the board to cancel the deal on other grounds. But finally, in 2008, the High Court of Justice ruled that the sale was legitimate. Nevertheless, over the years, Jaffans have continued to bury their dead in the area in question. There are now more than 500 graves there, according to the residents’ committee.
“We’re talking about an active cemetery, not about graves that are hundreds of years old,” notes attorney Ramzi Ktilat, from the elected Muslim Council of Jaffa. “I have family in that cemetery. Every funeral that sets out in Jaffa arrives there,” he added.
Lawyer Yoav Cook, from the law firm of Charcon, Ben-Ami, Asher & Co., stated on behalf of the board of trustees, who are among the defendants in the current cases: “The board of trustees rejects the lawsuits that were filed, and has submitted writs of defense and objection to the court. For years, the board opposed the transaction in which the Tasso Cemetery was sold in 1973, and did all in its power to prevent the transaction from being approved and implemented.”
The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality's spokesperson told Haaretz that, “even though this land is under the control of the state and the municipality’s role is related solely to the planning aspect, the Jaffa and municipal experts are in constant contact with the state authorities to bring about a permanent solution that will ensure that this happens. At this stage the Israel Lands Authority has not accepted the municipality’s proposal."
Attorney Shmuel Shoob, who represents the owners of the land in question, told Haaretz that the suits were only filed now because it was only half a year ago that his clients were legally permitted to register the property under their name. He explained that he and his clients would be open to a compromise, by which they would receive an alternative plot of land. However, Shoob added, the Tel Aviv Municipality has not to date proposed a realistic, economically viable solution. If one were forthcoming, it would not be rejected.