Construction on park near Arab graves sparks widespread outrage

Nature and Parks Authority insists graves that were illegally placed in the public area in recent years will not be disturbed.

 Arab families sitting by the graves of their relatives near Yusufiya Cemetery (photo credit: TZVI JOFFRE)
Arab families sitting by the graves of their relatives near Yusufiya Cemetery
(photo credit: TZVI JOFFRE)

Gardening work in an area containing Arab graves near a cemetery outside the Old City of Jerusalem has sparked outrage among Palestinians, officials and activists around the world, despite assurances by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Israeli courts that the graves would not be impacted.

Work began on the site a number of years ago as part of efforts to form a park on the land next to the Yusufiya Cemetery, also known as the Bab Al-Asbat (Lion’s Gate) Cemetery. Earlier this month, clashes between Arabs and Israeli security forces broke out at the site after human bones were reportedly uncovered by workers at the site.

Video and photos shared by Palestinian media showed the alleged remains laying in the dirt at the site; they have not yet been identified.

Despite only a small number of bones being photographed, the official Palestinian Authority WAFA news agency claimed that the bones of “dozens” of deceased persons were uncovered in the reported incident.

Mustafa Abu Zahra, head of the Committee for the Care of Islamic Cemeteries in Jerusalem, told WAFA that Israeli workers were completely covering the cemetery with dirt on Tuesday and claimed that the area included the graves of people who had died before 1967.

 Arab families argue with authorities about construction near graves of their relatives near Yusufiya Cemetery (credit: TZVI JOFFRE) Arab families argue with authorities about construction near graves of their relatives near Yusufiya Cemetery (credit: TZVI JOFFRE)

On Monday, a video of a woman named Alaa Nababta showing her holding on to her son’s grave in the area as Israeli security forces attempted to pry her off went viral on social media, with many Arabic news sites using the footage to attack Israeli authorities.

Violent clashes have broken out at the site multiple times in the past month between Israeli security forces and Arab demonstrators, in light of the controversy surrounding the site.

An official of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) stressed on Tuesday that “no work is being done in the cemetery.

“The work is being carried out on open public land designated for a public park and in the area of a national park located north of the cemetery,” said the official, adding that a number of graves were illegally placed in the area in recent years.

The official explained that although the burials were illegal, the work being carried out now would not damage the graves, and that the graves would remain in place intact.

“The families of the buried were assured that the works would not damage the graves and certainly that there would be no removal of corpses,” said the official.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum explained on Wednesday that the work being carried out by the Jerusalem Development Authority at the site is intended to restore the promenade next to the walls of the Old City.

“The works began several months ago and have received all the necessary permits and approvals, including court rulings in favor of the plans,” said Hassan-Nahoum, stressing that the area in question is an open public area located outside the cemetery, and that the graves at the site were placed illegally.

 Illustration of how the promenade at the site next to Jerusalem's Old City is meant to look after the work is completed (credit: JERUSALEM DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY) Illustration of how the promenade at the site next to Jerusalem's Old City is meant to look after the work is completed (credit: JERUSALEM DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY)

“Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that no tomb was damaged during the works, and there is no intention to displace any grave, even if built illegally,” added the deputy mayor. “The development work is being carried out with maximum sensitivity, with a desire to improve the quality of life of the Muslim residents and make the place more accessible, as is being done these days in many other areas across the Old City.”

Despite the claims by Palestinian media of bones being uncovered and graves being disturbed, Justice Daniel Mordechai Dembitz ruled, in a hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on October 14, that not enough clear evidence had been provided to prove that this was the case, and that there was evidence that the claimants had even violated previous court rulings and given false testimony.

During the hearing, an attorney for the Jerusalem Municipality and INPA pointed out that a witness at the site had testified that the workers had dug only 15 cm. deep at most, and that the bones had been laid in a way that is unsuitable for human remains to be buried. The attorney stated that these facts raised suspicions that this was “not a normal event of finding human bones.”

Dembitz stressed that the court was provided with photos of a few bones that appeared to be human and not organized in the position of burial or as part of a full skeleton. The photos also did not include any concrete notes or any clarification about who took the photos.

The judge stressed as well that the affidavit was written by Abu Zahra, who admitted that he did not personally witness the incidents in question but that he had representatives who were present at the site and were eyewitnesses. Dembitz questioned why the representatives who were actually present at the scene did not write the affidavit themselves or serve as witnesses during the hearing.

The plaintiffs also chose to present a collection of evidence, including photos and videos, only once the hearing had begun and not beforehand, claiming that this was done in order to “surprise” the defendants’ witness. Dembitz pointed out that the plaintiff in a case such as this had an obligation to present the evidence he possessed in an open manner before the hearing, saying that the plaintiff filed the request “in bad faith, nondisclosure and concealment of evidence.”

 Digging and construction in a park near Yusufiya Cemetery (credit: TZVI JOFFRE) Digging and construction in a park near Yusufiya Cemetery (credit: TZVI JOFFRE)

The judge stressed that “since the plaintiff refrained from having his people who he claimed saw with their own eyes the alleged wrongful actions of the defendants testify, the presumption is that their testimonies, if heard, would have shown that the plaintiff’s factual allegations lose.”

While the court described the land in question as open public land separate from the cemetery, an attorney for the plaintiff insisted that the land should be considered as part of the Yusufiya Cemetery.

A court ruled in July that no actions related to burial could be conducted on the land. Dembitz pointed out that INPA had provided reports on three separate incidents in which the plaintiffs had “clearly” violated the ruling and placed grave markings and replaced a gravestone with a larger gravestone.

Dembitz also pointed to claims that the court should consider the sensitivities of the site, as the continuation of work at the site had led and would continue to lead to violent clashes. The judge referenced a High Court of Justice ruling concerning a dispute surrounding the building of a museum near other Muslim graves in Jerusalem, which stated that “judicial discretion should not be influenced by street violence, or by a threat of other illegal conduct.”

According to the court ruling, the work by INPA can only include light work, such as covering ground, placing grids and gardening, and could not impact the graves in any way. The work also cannot include demolition, excavation, casting or drilling.

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi expressed outrage at the ongoing work near the graves on Tuesday, saying that “Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality hurt both the graves and Muslim feelings by desecrating the cemetery and the graves.”

Tibi called the work “an offensive and aggressive act toward the families of the dead,” and stressed that “if such a brutal and violent act would have happened in Europe, Israel [would be] the first to shout and condemn, calling it ‘antisemitism.’”

On Monday, Tibi tweeted photos of gravestones at the site, including a photo showing a broken one, claiming that all the workers at the site were “hilltop youth” working for the municipality.

The Palestinian factions warned Israel against continuing work near the graves on Tuesday, saying that they “will not stand idly by regarding these crimes.

“We call on our people in the West Bank to escalate the state of engagement with the enemy with all available tools and means so that they know that their continued occupation of our land and our sanctuary means that they will pay a heavy cost from the blood of the soldiers and Zionist usurper,” said the factions.

“The weapon of resistance will remain unfurled in the face of the Zionist enemy, and the ‘Sword of Jerusalem’ [the Palestinian name for the conflict with Gaza in May] will not be sheathed as long as the occupation remains on our land.”

“Unfortunately, the Nature and Parks Authority sees before its eyes the dry law and not the historical and deep connection that the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have, in this case, to the cemetery and the importance they attach to burial next to or near the Temple Mount,” said the Emek Shaveh organization in response to the situation. “This is while Israel is doing everything possible to allow Jewish burial on the Mount of Olives. It seems that Muslim cemeteries are treated differently from Jewish ones.

Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at the Ir Amim organization, responded to the controversy on Tuesday, saying, “The park in question is part of a series of government-funded projects which aim to link settler compounds in the Old City Basin.”

Tatarsky claimed that projects that seem to be apolitical, such as parks, promenades and tourist centers in the area, were actually political attempts to form a ring of settlements around the Old City.

“Similar projects are taking place on the Mount of Olives, [in] Silwan and [in] Sheikh Jarrah,” said the Ir Amim researcher. “The incidents at the Yusufiya Cemetery are an extreme example of the Israeli government’s lack of respect toward Palestinian property rights, heritage and holy places and its determination to make over the Old City Basin.”

Jerusalem City Councilwoman Laura Wharton (Meretz) stated that she is “terribly concerned about the work being done in the vicinity of the cemetery.

“There are few things more sensitive than graves, which, of course, must be treated with the utmost caution,” added Wharton. “In a time of such pressure, uncertainty and lack of trust, any activity in east Jerusalem must be carefully thought through and coordinated, and it does not appear to me that adequate consideration or caution has been taken.”