The protests in Jaffa have gone on for a week already and don’t seem to be calming down. The protests began in the wake of the resumption of construction at an 18th-century Muslim burial ground, after the Tel Aviv District Court approved the work. The city plans to build a halfway house there that will house around 80 homeless people.
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While the protests are over the resumption of construction work at the cemetery, they aren’t solely about respect for the dead. Their roots lie in the many problems from which Jaffa residents suffer and the inequality between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
The protests have included mass prayer, but also blocking roads, throwing stones, clashing with police and even the setting of fires. On Saturday, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a building owned by the city. Members of the Islamic Council denounce the violence but say the protests have only just begun.
It’s hard to view reports on events in Jaffa in isolation from events abroad. The death of George Floyd ignited protests throughout the United States, and they have spread across the ocean. In Jaffa, too, enforcement tactics against Arabs are aggressive, often turning explosive.
The cemetery was closed to new burials in 1915, and in 1936 the mufti of Jerusalem had the graves moved to a different cemetery in the city. Until 2018, Jaffa residents didn’t even know that this land – which in the past has housed a soccer field, a well-baby clinic and a homeless shelter – still contained dozens of graves. The court denied a petition demanding that it halt construction on the site, ruling that the interests of the living must take precedence over those of the dead.
But in Israel, where the sanctity of the dead and of archaeological finds are often used to justify decisions on construction, demolitions and sovereignty, it’s hard to avoiding seeing this as discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity. The authorities’ insensitivity toward the sanctity of the dead cries out in this case primarily in light of their excessive sensitivity toward Jewish graves. The municipality, instead of acting on its own and quietly removing the bones that were found there, as if it were trying to hide what it was doing, ought to have reached a negotiated solution with Jaffa’s Muslim organizations. Had it found Jewish graves there, would it also have acted on its own, quietly, to create facts on the ground while concealing it from the public?
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The police by themselves aren’t capable of solving either Jaffa’s fundamental problems or the ethnic tensions there. But they can and must try to prevent an escalation. And that will happen only if Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and leaders of the Arab community work together to try to reduce the sources of pressure in Jaffa and find a comprehensive solution to the residents’ protests. Overpolicing and police brutality could end in disaster.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.