Mourners filed in and out of the courtyard of Al-Omari Mosque in the Ramle shuk on Saturday, paying their respects to relatives of Muhammad Taji, a local Muslim leader found murdered inside the house of worship a day earlier.
Taji’s son Jamil, 56, greeted the condolence callers on Saturday, and spoke of his father as a community leader who spent his entire adult life volunteering for his community.
“He always tried to help anyone he could; Muslim, Christian, Jewish. We’re very much in shock, not just that someone could do this to a 76-year-old man, but also one who worked so much for the community and was never paid for it,” he said.
As well as his role as head of the local Islamic Wakf since 1975, he also managed a local soccer team, a youth club, and served as the adviser on Arab issues for the municipality of Ramle for many years.
Up until his death Taji remained a trusted adviser of Ramle Mayor Yoel Lavai, who called him “a moderate man who worked to bring different communities together,” adding that his death was a loss for the entire city.
Taji’s prominent role in Ramle public life increased the influence of the Taji family, which has remained one of the smaller Arab families in the city ever since almost the entire clan fled the fighting in 1948 for Jordan.
According to Jamil, only Taji’s father stayed in Israel, the last member of what he said was a very wealthy family that before the War of Independence owned property in Ramle and what is today Ness Tziona and Rishon Lezion.
Though they were part of the pre-1948 Palestinian Arab community in Ramle, Jamil said his father and the rest of the family never had any problems with the communities of Beduin who settled in Ramle in the following decades, nor with the families of West Bank mashtapim (collaborators) relocated to Ramle in recent years.
When asked if his father had any enemies in the city, he shrugged and said “when you work in a public position there’s always people who will be mad at you or disapprove of you. The Arabs in Ramle don’t really give each other much credit.”
In his position as the head of the Wakf, Jamil said his father was responsible for collecting rent and brokering real estate deals in the Ramle shuk, most of which he said is owned by the Wakf, which also has other large land holdings in the city.
Jamil said his father would collect a symbolic rental fee for the shuk properties, and would collect a commission on land sales.
As Jamil spoke, the sounds of prayer drifted out of the mosque as a young boy dashed around pouring black coffee for visitors.
Also known as the Great Mosque of Ramle, the building was originally founded as a cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist by crusaders in the 12th century.
When Ramle was later conquered by the Mamalukes in 1260, they converted the building into a mosque, adding a platform for the imam and a tall minaret, which today still towers over the Ramle shuk.
In the courtyard of the mosque is a stone dome believed to house the tomb of Shihab al-Din, a senior officer in the army of Salahdin.
It was in his office inside the mosque where Taji was found murdered Friday morning.
Immediately after the murder was reported Friday, police deployed YASSAM special patrol officers in and around the mosque, in case disturbances broke out. By Saturday afternoon the YASSAM officers were gone, and no disturbances had been reported in the city.
Jamil pointed out mourners who came to pay their respects from Jerusalem, Taiba, Lod, and elsewhere in Israel – including MK Ahmed Tibi, a cousin of Mohammed Taji.
After rushing to the scene of the murder on Friday, Tibi referred to his late cousin as “a man of dignity who worked day and night for his fellow man, through acts of charity and his stewardship of the Wakf properties.”
Tibi added that “he will always be remembered as a man with a heart of gold, who loved the city of Ramle and the Wakf this is a personal and public loss.”