In Tel Aviv on Tuesday, an Israeli court rejected an appeal by the Islamic Council of Jaffa to preserve a 200-year old Muslim cemetery, ruling instead that the municipality of Tel Aviv can move forward with plans to build a homeless shelter on the site.
The ruling followed weeks of protests, in which Israeli police beat Palestinian citizens who challenged the plan to demolish the cemetery. They said it was part of the Israeli government’s policy to erase Palestinian heritage, just as the Israeli government had erased and demolished so many Palestinian towns, villages and historic sites over the past 72 years that Israel has existed.
In addition to ruling that the cemetery could be destroyed, Judge Limor Bibi ordered the Jaffa Islamic Council to pay $2,200 in legal fees.
The case evoked memories of a similar fight that took place in Jerusalem several years ago, in which Palestinians resisted the Israeli plan to demolish a Muslim cemetery in order to build a ‘Museum of Tolerance’. They lost that fight, and the cemetery was destroyed in order to construct the Museum.
In the current case, the Islamic Council had managed to get an Israeli court to temporarily halt construction on the site when they proved that the Tel Aviv municipality had no legal permit to destroy the 200-year old Al-Isaaf cemetery. The original hearing was supposed to be July 22nd. But lawyers for the city of Tel Aviv argued that the city’s finances were being negatively impacted, and the court agreed to move the hearing up to July 7th.
The municipality argued that the site was not a place of special significance to Jaffa’s Muslim community, claiming that it had been abandoned for decades until their construction equipment dug up the skeletons of thirty people while doing excavation on the site.
The director of the Islamic Council, Tarek Ashkar, called the court ruling “legal acrobatics”, and said it was a blatant example of anti-Palestinian discrimination in Israel.
The judge appeared to make the decision based on a technicality – the fact that construction had continued on the site, and had not ceased for an entire year – because of the continuation of the work, Judge Bibi said that the permit was never invalidated, and so the municipality should not have to apply for a new permit.
According to Middle East Eye, the Al-Isaaf cemetery, which lies just north of the walls of Old Jaffa near the Hassan Bek Mosque, was built almost 200 years ago. Despite not being in active use for nearly 90 years, the cemetery holds hundreds of Palestinian tombs.
Middle East Eye points out that Jaffa was once an epicentre of the Palestinian economy, with some 120,000 people living in and around the flourishing city on the Mediterranean Sea in 1948. Almost 95 percent of the Palestinian population of Jaffa and its surrounding villages were expelled by Zionist militias during the Nakba, or the catastrophe, that year, during the formation of the state of Israel.
Over the decades, Jaffa’s historic neighbourhoods were progressively demolished and the city shrank into a small town that was then absorbed by the municipality of Tel Aviv.