Court Orders Tel Aviv Municipality to Halt Construction on Muslim Cemetery

The city set out to build a new center for homeless residents but discovered 30 tombs containing human bones from the Ottoman period

The area designated for construction in Jaffa, Israel.
Moti Milrod

The Supreme Court has ordered the Tel Aviv municipality to freeze construction of a homeless shelter it had begun to build last week over a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa. The freeze came following a petition to the court by the Islamic Council. In response, the municipality said it is acting legally and in consideration of the sensitivities of the residents.

A little over a year ago the city began to demolish a structure dating from the Ottoman period on Elizabeth Bergner Street in Jaffa, which was being used as a homeless shelter. In its place, the city wanted to build a three-story structure with a new homeless center and storefronts. However, when demolition began, 30 tombs containing human bones were discovered. The manner of burial and other historical data indicated that this was a Muslim cemetery in the Ottoman period. Construction was halted immediately after the remains were found, and the Israel Antiquities Authority came in to excavate.

>>Read more: Saving Tel Aviv-Jaffa's only Muslim cemetery

Dozens of Jaffa residents, including members of the Islamic Council protested the construction and entered the site, finding what they said was “a horrifying picture.” Dozens of graves had been opened, they said, some containing the remains of adult humans and children. The site was filled with dozens of cartons and buckets containing human bones and skulls that were to be removed and buried elsewhere. The protesting residents immediately began to rebury the remains in the graves from which they had been removed, and to map them. The Islamic Council then poured concrete at the site and built tombstones over each of the graves. The executive committee of the Islamic Council, which protects properties administered by religious trusts and holy places, began talks with the city, which were unsuccessful. The council said the city rejected a compromise it offered whereby the building would be built above the surface so the tombs would not be damaged.

A senior municipality official told Haaretz that the city is acting within the law and trying not to hurt the feelings of the residents and that although no agreement has been reached, the city intends to work carefully to cause minimum damage to the remains. The Israel Antiquities Authority, which is the only agency authorized to designate the site a cemetery, has not yet done so. In response to a query from Haaretz, the IAA said its research was still underway.

According to the city, two weeks ago it informed the Islamic Council that the mapping of the cemetery had begun in an effort to identify the original builders of the graves and that the new building would be planned in keeping with the findings. The city also said that the building would be built on the current site and it would not back down on this matter.

The chairman of the Jaffa Islamic Council, Mohammad Adri’i called the municipality’s compromise proposals “insulting,” adding: “When you’re told that the building will be built in any case there’s not much to discuss. They never brought me a document in writing with their proposals to show the rest of the council. Everything was verbal. I believe that in the end the facts will be determined on the ground – if we have to, we’ll come out in protest and insist on our democratic right, even during the Eurovision,” he said. The Islamic Council has turned to the Turkish government twice over the matter this month.

Last week, at the municipality’s request, a large police contingent arrived at the site so work could begin. The Islamic Council had prepared signs ahead of time reading: “Huldai is in my cemetery” and “Huldai is against the Muslims,” referring to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. The Islamic Council then filed a petition with the Supreme Court, at which point Justice George Kara issued a temporary stop-work order until a hearing on the matter. He also required the Tel Aviv Foundation, the municipality and the Israel Antiquities Authority to submit their responses to the court by May 5.

The Islamic Council stated in the petition that the work would seriously damage the site, and that “the work in the cemetery hurt, among other things, the sanctity of the site and the sensitivities of the Muslims in Jerusalem, Israel and the entire world.”

Attorney Ramzi Katilat, who submitted the petition, said: “The municipality and the Israel Antiquities Authority acted and are acting to crush the dignity of the dead and the religious sensitivities of the Muslims.”

Two Tel Aviv councilmen who are from Jaffa are members of Mayor Huldai’s coalition. The more veteran of the two, Amir Badran, told Haaretz that the solution to the problem would not come from proposals in the City Council. “Although I’m a member of the coalition, I don’t agree with this project. We see eye to eye with the residents on this matter. In my opinion the grassroots will decide whether this project goes ahead.”

Another city councilman from Jaffa, Abed Abu-Shehada, was arrested at protests at the site last year. He believes that there is a political context to the city’s decision. “The question is what would they do if bones of Jews were found. I am strongly opposed to the city’s conduct in the matter and damage to Arab society’s holy places, not to mention a cemetery. I expect flexibility from the city, to find solutions and to take the feelings of the Muslim community into consideration.”

The Islamic Council and the city are in talks over the future of another Muslim cemetery, the only active cemetery in the city that is on land purchased by private developers. In that instance as well, the Islamic Council petitioned the court but in the end the parties entered into negotiations to find a solution.

The Israel Antiquities Authority responded: “As opposed to the false presentation by political elements in the Waqf, the remains were collected and treated with sensitivity, under the supervision of an anthropologist and maintaining the dignity of the dead. At the same time, as is the usual practice, the Israel Antiquities Authority reported to the Religious Affairs Ministry the finding of human bones, which are to be reinterred. Due to events, the bones were eventually reinterred at the same site. Since the archaeological work of last year have ended, and in light of the fact that the human bones are not considered “ancient” by legal definition, the authority released the area to the developer. From the moment the area was released, it is the responsibility of the municipality alone and the antiquities authority is not a party to it.”

The Tel Aviv municipality responded: “In early April a meeting was held between the municipality, the Tel Aviv Foundation and the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Islamic Council in Jaffa. During the meeting it was made clear that the municipality and the foundation would go ahead with the work according to the permit, after mapping the area. At the request of the council, it was agreed that an extension of a week would be given before work started. A building stood on this site for the benefit of the homeless, which the municipality demolished to make way for a new structure in its place.”

The municipality added: “After almost a year of attempted dialogue and proposals from the municipality it intends to continue to work while making sure, as much as possible, not to harm the bones, out of consideration for the feelings of the community. It must also be noted that the structure for the homeless planned for the site will meet an important need of some 80 people living at risk in the street. This is especially true in light of the fact that the old structure has been demolished and there is a lack of beds for the homeless sin the city.”