Court Orders Tel Aviv Municipality to Halt Construction of Homeless Shelter on Muslim Cemetery Grounds

District court calls for talks between Islamic officials and city before final ruling on future of Ottoman-era site, where some 60 graves were found

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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Graves unearthed during the Israel Antiquities Authority salvage dig in the Al-Isaaf cemetery in Jaffa, slated to be the site of a shelter for homeless people, in 2018.
Graves unearthed during the Israel Antiquities Authority salvage dig in the Al-Isaaf cemetery in Jaffa, last year. It is slated to be the site of a shelter for homeless people. Credit: Yaffa 48
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The Tel Aviv District Court has suspended work on a municipal project involving construction of a shelter for the homeless on the grounds of a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa. About 60 graves with human remains have been found to date at the Al-Isaaf cemetery.

After a petition was submitted by the Islamic Council of Jaffa, the High Court of Justice handed down an interim order in April, halting work being done at the site. The parties involved, including the Israel Antiquities Authority (on behalf of the government), were to present their arguments before a final ruling would be handed down.

However, in the interim the authority withdrew as an interested party and the High Court's involvement became moot. After the council resubmitted its lawsuit – against the city this time – the district court became involved.

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

District Court Judge Kobi Vardi recommended in an interim decision last Thursday that the municipality resume its dialogue with the Islamic Council, which demands that all work be stopped at the Arab cemetery. Vardi said the two sides should come up with a practical solution that will meet the interests of everyone involved – including the homeless – so that a final ruling in the matter can be handed down.

After Vardi's decision, Mohammed Adri’i, chairman of the Islamic Council, commented that the city of Tel Aviv has plenty of land on which it could build a shelter for the homeless. For its part, the municipality stated that it would be willing to talk with anyone necessary in order to come to an arrangement and resume work at Al-Isaaf.

A grave discovered during the salvage dig at the Muslim cemetery in Jaffa, last year. The city of Tel Aviv has other land on which to build a homeless shelter, says the Islamic Council.Credit: Yaffa 48

Until about over a year ago an Ottoman-era structure housing a shelter for the homeless had stood on the land in question, on Elizabeth Bregner Street. The city decided to raze the edifice and replace it with a three-story building that would include shops. But after the old building was demolished the human remains were found and work was halted for the time being. The antiquities authority was called in for a salvage excavation, as is usual under such circumstances, and its archaeologists unearthed the graves.

Based on the manner of burial as well as historic documentation, the cemetery has been said to date to the Ottoman period.

Talks between the Islamic Council and the municipality about the future of the site broke down, after which the council petitioned the High Court, arguing that the project offended Muslim sensibilities and ignored the sanctity of the site.

Dr. Yoram Arbel, of the antiquities authority, told the court at the time that the excavation had shed significant light on Islamic burial practices in Jaffa during the Ottoman period, as well as on the city’s general development over the ages.

At first the Islamic Council had estimated that there were 30 graves in the cemetery, but the archaeologists' report revealed that there were about 60. Past excavations near the site, which is outside historic Old Jaffa, discovered the remains of a farm, industrial facilities and other graves, the latter dating to the 18th century.

Al-Isaaf cemetery appears on a military map from the days of Napoleon’s conquest in 1799, and also on other maps from the 1830s, antiquities officials reported. Burial at the site ceased in 1896, they noted, and as the area became settled and construction continued, the graves disappeared.

The graves unearthed by Israeli archaeologists in the Muslim cemetery in Jaffa. The city has been accused of offending sensibilities and ignoring the sanctity of the site.Credit: Yaffa 48

Adri’i sees a small victory in Judge Vardi's decision to stop work until a final ruling can be handed down. In a conversation with Haaretz, he reiterated his opinion that the city has other public land available for homeless shelters and it has not come up with one logical explanation of why there should be such a facility at this sensitive site in Jaffa, of all places, and not elsewhere.

"This whole situation has become a sort of personal affair," Adri’i said. “The city doesn’t want another cemetery to be discovered tomorrow, which would mean stopping the infrastructure work again. They’re not doing this because of the public interest, but in order to protect themselves in the future.”

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality is "prioritizing its ego over the greater good of a whole community," he added.

The municipality stated in response that it respects the district court's interim ruling and will suspend excavation and construction work until a final decision is made in the case.

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