Palestinians digging more graves on nat'l park land around Old City, activist says

Right-wing activist Aryeh King warned on Monday that more of the area immediately outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, which has been designated as a national park, was being used by Palestinians to bury their dead. "The situation is not static," King told the High Court of Justice. "It is deteriorating." King and the Committee to Prevent the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount petitioned the High Court in 2004 and 2005 respectively, charging that Moslems were turning part of the Ophel, situated at the southeast corner of the Old City walls, into a cemetery. During Monday's hearing, King warned that Palestinians had started burying their dead in two areas further north, near the Rahamim Gate and near the Gethsemane Junction. King told The Jerusalem Post that these areas were also part of the national park. The representative of the Committee to Prevent the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, attorney Shmuel Berkowitz, also charged that the authorities had done almost nothing to turn the Ophel area into a park despite their petition. "Four years ago, the state announced that it had prepared a plan to turn the area into a national park," said Berkovitz. "So, what has it done? It filled up 13 empty graves and put some earth around them. After four years, the area still looks like a garbage dump." The petitions involved an area of 2,000 square meters, Berkovitz said. It contains 68 gravesites but only 13 people are buried there so far. The other sites have either been marked off with building blocks, or a wooden sign with the name of the family has been driven into the ground. Some graves have been dug but are empty. Berkovitz also charged that the state's explanation that it must act cautiously regarding a site which is so sensitive because of the dispute over it between Jews and Muslims, was false. "Up until August 2006, the state warned that if it worked on the site, it could trigger bloody protests. Since then, it has talked about the area as being 'sensitive.' Why the change in wording? "Because on that day, after hearing our arguments, public security minister Avi Dichter gave orders that there would be no more burials on the site. And since then, there haven't been. Furthermore, there haven't been any Muslim protests, thus proving that the security argument is untrue." The state's representative, Uri Kedar, told the court that the state had prepared a plan to turn the area into a park and had executed the first stage last July, when it filled in 13 graves. But he added that he could not tell the court when the next stages of the gardening project would be completed. "The very presentation of a timetable could stir unrest," Kedar told the court. The best thing would be to allow the state to take advantage of circumstances as they arise to complete the gardening program. "Physically, we can do what the petitioners want immediately," added Kedar. "But the price we may have to pay might not be worth it." The petition was heard before presiding Justice Edmond Levy and Justices Asher Grunis and Esther Hayut. Levy said the court's decision would be handed down soon.