A political battle over a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem that began with charges of insensitivity leveled at plans for a museum of religious tolerance at the site has spread into a more curious fight about whether hundreds of nearby tombstones are even real.
The Mamilla cemetery had its peace disturbed this month by Israeli bulldozers demolishing gravestones in the middle of the night and by Muslim protests. The once sleepy plot of Muslim gravestones in Jewish west Jerusalem has become a flash point for rival claims to the holy city at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Since early this year, activists from Israel’s Islamic Movement have been cleaning and restoring graves at the cemetery, where tradition says famous Islamic scholars are buried beside warriors who fought the Crusaders.
However, Israeli authorities said the activists went beyond restoration and manufactured hundreds of graves in a political attempt to cement their hold on the site.
This month, municipal crews arrived at night with power shovels and erased about 300 low, coffin-shaped tomb markers that Israeli officials and archeologists say were fake and contained no human remains.
This drew protests from the Islamic Movement.
“The graves are not empty and the graveyard is not fake as they claim,” said Nuha al-Qutob, 35, who attended a recent rally.
She said her grandfather was buried nearby.
The cemetery first drew attention in 2004 with the beginning of work on the Museum of Tolerance. Undertaken with the stated goal of promoting coexistence, the museum is a project of the US-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish organization named for a famous Nazi hunter.
A century ago, the cemetery was a rural plot sprawling outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Today it is hemmed in by luxury hotels, a high-end shopping mall and a cluster of clubs and bars.
Some of the unused cemetery’s land was rezoned by Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, with part becoming a park and one corner a municipal parking lot.
In a reflection of how even the best intentions can go awry in the holy city, the tolerance museum turned into a public relations debacle when it became clear that the plot of land slated for its construction — the parking lot — contained human remains.
The cemetery has not shrunk since the 1960s and Israel denies that any more land will be rezoned. However, Muslim activists fear parts of the plot will be severed and consumed.
When the attempts to block the museum in Israeli courts failed in 2008, the Islamic Movement began concentrating its efforts on the rest of the cemetery, outside the security-camera-mounted walls of the museum construction site.
The movement began bringing in volunteers and contractors to clean up the land and restore the graves with the city’s permission, investing about US$100,000, according to Mahmoud Abu Atta, a foundation spokesman.
A few months passed, Israeli officials said, before they noticed a dramatic increase in the number of graves. A pathway that city gardeners regularly used with their pickup truck was suddenly blocked by headstones and a row of gravestones mysteriously appeared over an underground sewage line and on top of one manhole cover, said Shlomo Chen, an inspector with the Israel Lands Authority in charge of the graveyard.
City crews began arriving at night to demolish the gravestones. Restored graves that the city deemed genuine were left untouched.
“It is important to note that this is one of the biggest frauds perpetrated in recent years, and its sole goal was to illegally take over state land,” the Jerusalem municipality said.
Abu Atta said all of the markers were constructed atop genuine graves, though in some cases nearly nothing was left of the original. He also indicated that the precise location of the graves was beside the point.
“If you dig a few meters down anywhere here, you’ll find bones,” he said. “We just want to guard the cemetery.”
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