Israeli authorities in the city of Beersheba, in a symbolic gesture, have recently converted an historic mosque into an Islamic museum, despite the fact that 10,000 local Muslims still have no place to pray.Locals told Ma’an News Agency that an exhibit showcasing a collection of Muslim prayer rugs was recently opened in the building that was formerly the Great Mosque of Beersheba, once used regularly as a mosque before the 1948 expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from what is now officially recognized as the state of Israel.
The exhibit, locals say, has no Arab or Muslim member on the technical supervisory team, and is scheduled to continue until June 2015.
The move comes after decades of protest from the area’s 10,000-strong Muslim Palestinian community, composed primarily of local Bedouins whose ancestors survived the expulsions, as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel who have moved to the city from other parts of the country.
Representatives of the community have long petitioned Israeli authorities to allow them to open the mosque for daily prayers or, at least, once per week for traditional Friday prayers.
However, the demands have been repeatedly rejected and, in 2011, Israeli Supreme Court officials rejected a request to open it, as well, allowing the building to be transformed into a museum with a focus on Islam.
The irony is not lost on local Palestinian Muslims, Ma’an reports, as they have long complained that Israeli authorities neglect Palestinian heritage and frequently appropriate Palestinian symbols and architecture.
The mosque was built in 1906, during the Ottoman era, through donations collected from Bedouin residents of the Negev.
The mosque remained active until the Israelis occupied the city, in 1948, turning it into a detention center and headquarters for a magistrate court, following the expulsion of approximately 6,000 Beersheba residents, mostly to Gaza.
Thousands of Jewish immigrants were subsequently brought in to populate the city, while Palestinian refugees — who now make up the largest refugee population on Earth — were never allowed to return, despite the fact that most of them lived only kilometers away.
In 1953, Ma’an further reports, Israeli authorities turned a portion of the mosque into a museum, which was recognized in 1987 by the Israeli department of archaeology as the ‘Negev Museum’.
However, in 1992, the museum was shut down because the building had become vulnerable. It has been retrofitted recently, however, paving the way for its reuse.