Appalled by chronic attacks against visitors to Judaism’s oldest and largest cemetery, located on the Mount of Olives, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon demanded greater safety measures during a tour of the holy site Wednesday morning.
The cemetery, where four prophets, former prime minister Menachem Begin, Hebrew revivalist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and leaders of revered rabbinical dynasties are buried, is only accessible by driving through Palestinian neighborhoods.
The 3,000 year old holy site is estimated to contain between 150,000 and 200,000 graves.
The majority of the attacks have taken place on the congested main roads leading to the site by Palestinian students from a nearby high school and middle school who hurl rocks at Jewish drivers and deface gravesites.
The violence has been so pronounced over the years, that many visitors have been forced to retain security escorts provided by the Ministry of Housing and Construction, who will guard them for no more than 40 minutes.
Although there has been a decrease in the attacks since leaders of the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim lobbied the government to place surveillance cameras and a police sub-station at the site, the violence has continued.
Indeed, during Passover Tova Richler, who came from New York to attend her father’s funeral, was besieged by over 10 Palestinian youths who stoned her car, forcing her and three other family members to flee for safety and miss the service.
Richler was subsequently treated for shock. “I’ve heard of people’s cars being stoned on their way to the Mount of Olives, but I never thought this would happen to me,” she said of the experience.
During his tour of the cemetery, Danon demanded a stronger police presence.
“If Jews who come to visit their loved ones in a cemetery at any one of the capitals of the world were harmed – whether in Paris or Warsaw – or Jewish graves were smashed, there would be a large outcry, and police would be urgently needed to address the issue,” he said. “The Israel Police must make this issue a top priority.”
Although a police substation was constructed adjacent to the cemetery nearly two years ago, Abe Lubinsky, chairman of the International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim, said the effort has fallen far short of what was promised.
According to Lubinsky, while the small substation is supposed to be manned by nearly a dozen officers during three shifts over 24 hours, presently only a handful of officers are regularly on duty.
“The government put 147 surveillance cameras on the mountain, which has helped lower grave desecration, but people are still being stoned on the way there, and some nearly lynched,” said Lubinsky, whose Holocaust-survivor parents are buried at the site.
“This site must be accessible 24-hour-a-day so people can safely visit their loved ones,” he added.
While Danon said he was pleased that the grave desecrations have lowered since the surveillance cameras were installed, he noted that there must be a zero-tolerance policy on visitors being attacked.
“I’m happy that there has been a decrease in incidents, but we want no incidents,” said the deputy defense minister, who also has family buried at the cemetery. “We must have freedom of religion and safety for all people in this country, including Jews.”
To that end, Danon said he is working with Israeli Police.
“This is not under my jurisdiction, but I will continue to speak with the head of the Interior Police to add more forces to be present here to ensure the safety of visitors,” he said.
Danon then grimaced as he looked at thousands of the graves overlooking the Temple Mount and walls of the Old City.
“These grave sites must be respected,” he said. “People choose to be buried here because it is right in front of the Temple Mount, and we must ensure it is safe.”
Moreover, Danon said that any framework for peace negotiations would need to take into account that the cemetery would obviously remain in Israeli hands under any possible agreement.
“I think it is very important that we speak about future agreements [with respect to Har Hazeitim] because it’s important to understand that if Jews don’t have full sovereignty of holy sites, there will be no freedom of religion.”
Danon went on to issue caution against leftist activists who encourage handing over the Mount of Olives to Palestinians in a peace deal.
“For all the people on the left who say we should move from areas like this, they need to understand that it would mean that people won’t be able to come here anymore,” he said. “That will be the reality.”
Jeff Daube and Harvey Schwartz, both co-chairman of the Israel Steering Committee for the Mount of Olives preservation NGO, also voiced grave concern over the ongoing violence against Jewish visitors.
“We don’t just want to ensure security, but to also enhance the mountain to make it the educational center for Jewish history and Zionism,” said Daube.
Indeed, Daube said plans are underway to construct a visitor and education facility on the site, with the help of a NIS 10 million government allocation. Meanwhile, Schwartz emphasized the import of the site with respect to Jewish history.
“A people that forgets its past has no future,” he said, noting that Har Hazeitim is the third most visited site in Jerusalem. “In one of Israel’s most historic locales, this is not acceptable and it’s important that the general population understands its significance historically and that we enforce a zero-tolerance policy.”
Daube, who works closely with the United States Congress, which represents many American Jewish families who have relatives buried at the site, cautioned that if action is not taken soon to protect visitors to the cemetery, a death may be imminent.
“Unless this place is made 100 percent safe, I’m going to predict that there will be a death as a result of this,” he said.