Construction on Muslim Cemetery Brings Mistrust Between Jaffa's Arabs and Israeli Authorities to Boiling Point

Five consecutive days of protests and clashes with police are sign of a much broader issue

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The prayer demonstration that took place as part of the the protests in Jaffa, June 10, 2020
The prayer demonstration that took place as part of the the protests in Jaffa, June 10, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The root of the protest that erupted Tuesday in Jaffa and ended with road blockages, stone throwing and confrontations with police was officially the destruction of a Muslim burial ground for the building of a homeless shelter. But beneath the surface it seems this is not just a struggle over respect for the dead, but a war over much broader problems Jaffa residents are having with the authorities.

Three events during the past year have clouded the relationship between the residents and the municipality: The complete closure of the main street, Jerusalem Boulevard, for work on the light rail, at very short notice and contrary to the plan promised to residents; the drawing up of a plan to divide the Tasso Muslim cemetery without consulting the residents; and now the construction on the ancient burial ground. In the background are the violent disturbances that broke out three months ago after several arrests in the area, and the sense is that Jaffa is seething.

Police walk by a sign protesting building on the site of a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa, June 8, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Islamic Council, a welfare organization that represents 7,000 people in the current struggle, says the protests have only begun; mass prayers to protect the cemetery took place Wednesday night and are planned for Thursday and Friday as well. As part of the struggle for the cemetery, in February the council named a board of trustees for the Muslim charitable trust properties, which had operated in Jaffa 40 years ago but was dismantled when the chairman was suspected of selling trust properties to Jews and was murdered.

Many residents came to vote on reestablishing the board, and Islamic Movement flags were raised. “Six years ago we demanded the return of the Wakf [Islamic trust] properties, but it didn’t help,” said Mohammad Edrei, the elected chairman. “So we’ve changed course. Today we are at a new and historic stage.”

Jaffa residents didn’t even know until 2018 that there were dozens of graves on land that had previously housed a soccer field, a Tipat Halav mother-and-child clinic and an awning to shelter homeless people. The cemetery, which is mentioned in maps of the region from the 17th century, was shut down in 1915. In 1936 the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had most of the graves moved to the Someil cemetery near Independence Park for sanitation reasons.

Most of the residents apparently wouldn’t have had a problem with moving the remaining bones, had they not seen employees of the Antiquities Authority two years ago covertly removing skeletons from excavations in the area and throwing them into boxes and pails. Members of the Islamic Council, who weren’t aware of the discovery before this, seized control over the cemetery within 24 hours and put up gravestones.

At first the two sides tried to negotiate, but the contacts failed. “We suggested numerous options in these two years, we wanted to buy the plot, but the municipality didn’t agree,” says the chairman of the Islamic Council, Tarek Ashqar. “We agreed that the building could be built if the graves weren’t touched, but the municipality told me, ‘As far as we’re concerned there isn’t a single grave here, we are compromising with you just by talking to you.’”

Police on horses at a protest in Jaffa, June 9, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

He added that Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai “had a golden opportunity to settle with the Muslims. But he won’t budge, nor will we.”

A senior municipality official who was involved in the process told Haaretz that the city tried to involve other people in Jaffa aside from the Islamic Council to reach agreements, but this failed, too. “This place hasn’t been a cemetery for a long time, but we are still looking at the compound sensitively and are trying not to touch it,” he said. “We’re working by hand, the tractor isn’t touching a single bone, but the Islamic Council thinks we have to get out of there and not touch anything.”

The council petitioned the High Court of Justice last year and obtained a temporary restraining order, but in January the court ruled in favor of the city. After another few months of failed attempts at communication, the city brought a tractor and laborers to the site on Tuesday and prepared for a potential confrontation with the residents. Large armed police forces were there by 5 A.M., and any resident who wanted to pass through the area had to circumvent the barriers.

The response came Tuesday night, when hundreds of local Arabs began to March from Ajami to the cemetery and blocked traffic. When they came to Clock Square, police began to disperse them. Police claimed this happened when marchers threw fireworks that endangered the public and assaulted passersby. The demonstrators, for their part, complained about police brutality, which included throwing stun grenades at demonstrators.

The municipality said, “The protest last night [Tuesday] does not represent most Jaffa residents, who have confidence in the municipality. We’re talking about a plot that served as a cemetery in the Turkish era and was evacuated decades ago. After speaking to the Jaffa leadership, an outline was drawn up to continue construction that was approved by the court. The municipality will continue to build the shelter with great sensitivity to any finding that might be uncovered.”

The police said, “The Israel Police allows every citizen freedom of expression, freedom to demonstrate and freedom of religion. If the protest becomes violent and dangerous as it was yesterday, the police will act to halt it. The police acted immediately to stop a display of violence that endangered the public.”

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