Grave developments

Despite a stop-work order, the construction of an illegal mosque on the Mount of Olives continues.

Mosque being built on the Mount of Olives 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Aryeh King)
Mosque being built on the Mount of Olives 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Aryeh King)
Late prime minister Menachem Begin asked in his will to have a “simple Jewish burial” near his beloved wife in the largest Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem – the Mount of Olives facing the Temple Mount. His grave is indeed located on the lower slope of the mount overlooking Jericho Road, but something has been happening there for the last year and a half: A mosque is being built just below the grave at street level.
The construction of the mosque is illegal – an order to stop the work was issued in June 2010 – but according to right-wing activists, work is still going on inside the structure.
Illegal construction by Arab residents in east Jerusalem – even the construction of mosques, which naturally creates sensitive situations – is not so rare. But in this particular case, there are a few additional aspects that complicate the story.
For about a year, the municipality has issued no demolition orders for illegal structures in Arab neighborhoods. Not that anyone – on the Left or the Right – is trying to say that there is no such construction, but it seems that all parties find it convenient to avoid the topic.
Meretz City Council members Meir Margalit and Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu consider the situation part of a non-written agreement with Mayor Nir Barkat to avoid demolitions in order to calm the situation on the ground – and perhaps along the way to convince the Arab population that having Meretz on the city council coalition is not a bad thing.
For Barkat, this policy seems, so far, to be the best way to pave the road to his policy in east Jerusalem, where he aims to create a better atmosphere for Arab residents. While there are no demolitions going on, there are plenty of projects to improve Arab residents’ quality of life.
Meanwhile, two issues that are obviously dear to the mayor’s heart are benefiting from the relative calm reigning in these neighborhoods. One is that despite a long list of court rulings to seal off two stories, the seven-story Beit Yehonatan building in Silwan is still inhabited by seven Jewish families.
Similarly, even though it is no longer openly mentioned, Barkat’s plan for the Gan Hamelech complex has not been canceled.
But the calm in east Jerusalem neighborhoods, especially in Silwan, doesn’t meet the interests of everyone involved. For Israel Land Fund (ILF) director Aryeh King, this situation is no less than a disaster to the plans to bring more Jews to live in east Jerusalem.
King, who discovered the illegal mosque construction and submitted a complaint to the municipality, says he is aware of the agreement between the parties and completely opposes it. Meanwhile, the mosque near Begin’s grave is still there, and work is being done inside the structure despite the municipality’s order and police patrols in the area.
The structure has been illegally connected to the water pipes. The interior walls have been completed, infrastructure for windows and doors already exists, and the building is stocked with large amounts of construction materials such as sand, cement and stones. According to King, observers from the ILF monitored mass removal of construction waste that piled up over Rosh Hashana (when the municipality’s supervisors are off duty) and the removal of large stones placed there by the municipality specifically in order to prevent such construction.
“During all this time,” adds King, “Palestinians from the West Bank villages who are illegally staying in the region are allowed by the builders to sleep there.”
“I WISH the ruling [issued by the court to seal off the last two illegal stories of] Beit Yehonatan was finally implemented; I would be the first to seal those two illegal stories there,” the ILF director declared in a phone conversation earlier this week.
According to King, the desire of the Ateret Cohanim organization – which supports Jewish ownership in predominantly Muslim areas in the capital and which financed and built Beit Yehonatan – to prevent the law’s implementation in this case is causing real damage to Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem in general and in Silwan in particular.
Oddly enough, Alalu and Margalit grudgingly agree with the status quo regarding Beit Yehonatan, albeit from a different point of view.
“It is not totally correct that there were not any house demolitions [in 2011],” says Margalit, “but certainly there is no comparison to what we witnessed here before, and we all understand that the ‘price’ is some silent agreement over Beit Yehonatan, so I’d say that at least people are not being thrown onto the streets in the winter cold.”
Alalu is less enthusiastic about the situation, but also admits that preventing the gloomy pictures of Palestinian families, including babies and the elderly, being thrown out of their houses is an achievement not to be disregarded.
And that is exactly what bothers King.
“Because of this situation, illegal buildings by Arab residents are not demolished – one of them being this mosque in the Mount of Olives cemetery,” he argues. “Not to mention the hypocrisy here – I’m sure that if David Ben-Gurion were buried here and not Begin, this mosque wouldn’t be standing here for a minute!” The Mount of Olives cemetery belongs to the national graveyards council and has undergone a tremendous rehabilitation effort over the past five years. Over NIS 80 million has been invested in cleaning and rehabilitating the burial stones desecrated since the Jordanian period (between 1948 and 1967), and in sophisticated monitoring and security devices to prevent any further desecration. Yet there continues to be some vandalism, and some view the construction of the mosque close to the former prime minister’s tomb as desecration as well.
One of the most disturbing results of the illegal construction, according to a source from the national graveyards council, is the blockade on the cemetery’s plot No. 7. This plot, one of the last still available for burial, is being blocked for use because of massive illegal construction by Arab residents, including a large parking area, the source says.
King claims that although all the parties involved in the maintenance and security of the site are aware of the situation, nothing has been done “because they are all are afraid of risks of violence from the Arab residents or some embarrassing media coverage. And meanwhile the illegal building by Arabs goes on and on.”