A call to prayer, unheeded

Beersheba’s only mosque has been off-limits to Muslims for 63 years. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that it still cannot be used as a house of prayer.

Beersheba mosque_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Beersheba mosque_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In the unforgiving Beersheba sun, a man parks his truck by the outdoor vegetable market and kneels on the concrete lot for his 4:30 p.m. prayers.
Down the parking-lot steps into a muddy alley littered with garbage, another dozen Muslim men have finished their worship, facing the cement wall of rented stalls numbers 524 and 525, paid for by a Beduin donor.
“There is nowhere else to pray but here,” says a man in a Muslim tunic, shrugging, after leading the prayers. “For the midday prayers, dozens of men lined the entire alley – at least it is better than the days when hundreds of us prayed in the parking lot in the hot sun.”
Standing in the shadows, Nuri el-Oqbi, a Beduin activist, is shaking his head. “This is a dirty place with a bad smell; prayers are supposed to be in a pure place,” he says. “They should be praying in the mosque.”
The only mosque in Beersheba, a 10-minute walk away, is locked. The Beersheba Municipality is the only keeper of the keys since 1948, when the state was founded.
After the local Muslims fled or were expelled during the war, the city used the property as a prison and a courthouse. In 1950, when Israel passed absentee property laws, the city took over the mosque officially and began transforming it into a museum of Negev antiquities. Housing many objects forbidden in mosques according to Islamic law, the museum was open from 1953 to 1991, when the building started to fall apart. From 1991 to 2010, the mosque was left abandoned and neglected.
Faced in sandstone, with a white dome and sagegreen doors and windows, the Beersheba mosque was built in 1905 by an Ottoman sultan, and was known until 1948 as the Great Mosque of the Nakab (Negev).
Today the mosque faces the tall barbed-wire fence of the Southern Command administrative base across the street.
Oqbi has been protesting to use the historic mosque since the 1970s, when restrictions on Muslims entering Beersheba eased. Until 1966, Arabs in Israel were under military rule, and Muslims required a permit from the military governor to enter Beersheba. By the next decade, the city started to become a magnet for Muslims from around the Negev who wanted to shop, study in university, use or work in the hospital, health clinics, banks, businesses or services, or just find a more middle- and upper-middle class lifestyle.
Today, there are approximately 5,000 Muslim residents in Beersheba and 200,000 in the surrounding Negev, including tens of thousands who pour into the city every day for work, study or services, according to the Negev Coexistence Forum.
The Muslims in Beersheba who wish to observe traditional prayers do so in parking lots, on side streets, or in their workplaces. On Fridays, the Muslim holy day, those who wish to join a community often close shop and drive beyond the city limits to find a functional mosque – or meet in the parking lot of the shuk.
At first Oqbi petitioned the municipality numerous times, sent letters to Knesset members and held nonviolent prayer vigils on the grounds of the mosque.
In 2002, he sough the help of Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, to petition the Supreme Court to let Muslims use the mosque, based on the “Basic Law – Human Dignity and Freedom,” which includes freedom of religion as a constitutional right. The petition also argued the neglect and misuse of a holy site.
At that time, when this journalist visited the Beersheba mosque with Oqbi, Arab lawyers and some Orthodox Jews who were passing by, the grounds were covered with garbage. The walls were etched and spray-painted with graffiti, including curses. A peek through the crack in the door showed the floor of the mosque carpeted with bird droppings. Since then, the property has been dramatically altered. Its original stone enclosing wall has been lowered in some parts and taken down completely in others, and the property has merged with a museum next door, with no division between them, putting the museum on the mosque grounds.
Though the city finally cleaned the grounds and graffiti last year, Oqbi received the news last week – nine years after the petition was filed – that the court had finally made a ruling that felt like another blow: Muslims cannot use the mosque as a house of prayer, but may use it as an Islamic museum.
It is the first Supreme Court ruling in Israel about an abandoned mosque.
The majority decision reprimanded the Beersheba Municipality for the years of neglect and not taking the Muslim community’s feelings into consideration when it used the grounds for municipal entertainment festivals and when it lobbied to create a municipal museum with no connections to Muslim heritage.
In the future, the municipality will have to consult with the Muslim community before making any additional changes to the building or grounds, according to the ruling.
The most critical issue for the Muslims, though – having the right to worship in the mosque – ended up falling to the powers of the planning authorities.
The verdict said that though the mosque was not disputed as a historic house of Muslim prayer, the interior structure was designed as a museum, based on former planning committee decisions. If petitioners wish to “convert” it to a mosque, they must turn to the planning and committees; if rejected, they can return to the Supreme Court.
Though Beersheba had argued that a mosque could cause disturbance and incitement and that the local Muslim population was too small to warrant a place for prayers, the majority of judges did not find cause for either concern.
According to a study Adalah did in 2005, the ratio of synagogues to Jewish residents in Beersheba was roughly 1:700.
THE ISSUE goes beyond Beersheba, though, relating to the dozens of abandoned mosques around the country. According to former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, who wrote about mosques in Israel in 2005, “out of some 140 village mosques that were abandoned due to the war in 1948, some 100 were totally torn down [by Israel]. The rest, about 40, are in advanced stages of collapse and neglect, or are used by the Jewish residents for other purposes...Requests of ‘present-absent’ refugees (Palestinians who live in Israel but are classified by the state under the oxymoron ‘Present Absentees’ to prevent them from claiming ownership of their property) to repair the mosque have been refused by the authorities.”
The Islamic Movement of Northern Israel’s research on abandoned holy properties finds closer to 200 remaining abandoned mosques, most of which are used by the Jewish community or neglected and locked.
Political analysts have speculated that during the nine years the Beersheba case lingered, judges may have been fearful of setting a precedent for returning such properties to Muslim communities.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a former military intelligence officer and Arab culture lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, concurs that mosques have been destroyed, neglected or used for other purposes, ranging from stables to restaurants. As a religious Jew, he was disturbed when he saw the grounds of the mosque in a disrespectful state.
Though he thinks that prayers at mosques don’t necessarily pose security risks, he charges that the debate about them is disguising what he calls the larger security issue of the Palestinian “right of return.”
“The Islamic movement has been crying for years about their mosques and cemeteries and to return to the places they left – forcibly or not. These are the hooks in an attempt to hold this land,” Kedar said.
“They use mosques and cemeteries as a Trojan horse, a tool to turn the wheel of history back from... what they view as an illegitimate state built on an Islamic country.”
Indeed, if a court were to permit local Muslims to pray in the abandoned mosques, it could set a precedent for future petitions to renovate and put to use abandoned Muslim holy sites owned before 1948.
Why not? asks former Labor MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, who represents the other side of the political spectrum on issues of Arabs in Israel.
“There seems to be no limit to atrocities against simple and plain human rights, dignity and common sense in the name of security. We have a law about freedom of religion and [protecting] holy places... all the holy places chosen [for preservation] were Jewish,” Melchior says.
“I took leading rabbis to look at Muslim holy places, and we found them misused and used for terrible purposes – I don’t even want to say what. We all agreed this was not dignified for a Jewish state,” he continues. “The mayor last week in Upper Nazareth said he would never let the Muslims – 15 percent to 16% of his population – have a mosque. Just think what we would say if people said that about Jews anywhere! Nobody disputes it is a mosque, and now it can’t function as a mosque? It’s not a left- or right-wing issue, but one of human decency, and as a rabbi, I think it’s also a Jewish issue.”
A bill Melchior introduced to protect Muslim and Christian holy sites in 2007 did not pass. A petition by Adalah to the Supreme Court in 2004 asking that the Religious Affairs Ministry also slate Muslim and Christian holy sites for preservation was dismissed in 2009 on a technicality.
The roughly 135 places in Israel declared as holy sites are all Jewish, says Adalah.
TO UNDERSTAND the local Muslim experience, The Jerusalem Post sat down with Oqbi and with 35-year Beersheba resident Thabet Abu Rass, a lecturer on political geography at Ben-Gurion University and Sapir College, and head of Adalah’s Negev office.
What is your personal connection to this mosque?
I was born 10 kilometers from Beersheba in El-Arikhib in 1942, as was my father, my grandfather and at least another seven generations. In 1947, before there was a country, our family moved to Beersheba so my brother could study in the school. But less than a year later, the state was established and there was fighting, so we returned to El-Arikhib. None of the 12,000 Arab residents stayed.
Beersheba is built on land that the Turks purchased from the Beduin Azazmi tribes. The city they built became the most important place for the Beduin in the Negev. The Great Beersheba Mosque was built for the Beduin with money from all the Beduin from every tribe in the area; every tribe gave according to its size. My father wrote down the story of his life in 1930 so the family would have it, and said our family had also paid. Around 1898, [Beduin] paid for 2,000 dunams [for a mosque] – 5 gold lirot for every dunam.
By the years after the 1967 war, I was a young man, I listened to Israeli radio, and I realized it was inappropriate to talk about peace and justice while denying the rituals of another religion. Later, all the tribes came to Beersheba, and there were always good relations between the Beduin and the Jews, but I saw Beduin praying on the streets and in dirty places. I felt bad. My father prayed five times a day; he was not a fanatic, he was very easygoing, but it was forbidden to pray in an impure place, so I decided to write petitions to let us pray in the mosque.
I’m not religious, but it is a matter of rights. Israel needs to show that it preserves and protects all religions and all peoples, and that is what leads to peace.
What form of protest did you do to renovate and reclaim the mosque in the ’70s and ’80s?
I worked on petitions to the municipality and letters to government ministers, I talked on the radio, I brought important sheikhs and ambassadors to show support. In 1974, I got a letter supporting us from the Religious Affairs Ministry. [The letter, shown to the Post, from then-minister of religious affairs Yitzhak Rafael to MK Eitan Livni, read: “We request that the municipality empty out the mosque for repairs and prepare for the Muslims to pray there.”] Nothing changed.
I also came with a group of Muslims, and we left our shoes outside and went inside to pray. It was a form of protest. The police showed up, and I asked them to please not disturb the prayers. They started throwing our shoes. I went outside and they wanted to arrest me, but I said, I am not going without shoes. They returned the shoes and they took me to the station for questioning.
I spent three, four hours being investigated, but they didn’t charge me.
One time [in 1986], at 5 a.m., an engineer calls me [and says] that they are breaking the fence to the mosque. I ran over to see what was happening and [later] the local court gave us a stop-work order.
The city said there were [prostitutes] and people doing drugs there, so they wanted to lower the fence so that a guard could see. I understand, but it was a bluff. It was a destruction of the mosque property, and I saw that they wanted to use the property for their own needs.
Is it true that in 1990 the mosque was used for a Hanukka celebration?
A giant hanukkia was put on the roof. I complained. It is disrespectful to hurt the feelings of another religion. Eventually they took it down.
Why were you arrested the second time?
In 2000, on Land Day, I took white paint and painted on a large door: “The Great Beersheba Mosque.” I wanted to protest for them not to forget us. They arrested me again. There was a trial for five, six years. I saw on the walls etched into the stone boys’ and girls’ names all over the mosque – nobody cared – everyone was writing [graffiti] and I didn’t, God forbid, write anything bad or against anyone, but I was the only person ever arrested for writing graffiti on the mosque.
Besides the police, what reactions have you gotten to your public protests?
People say I’m an extremist and political and that I do things only to scare Jews. I have no political or diplomatic intentions. I do it for the interest of the public. I want to be respected in this country together with Jews, and I think there is a place to live together and be together in peace for real, and not on my account, and not on yours. I would protect Jewish places as I respect Islamic places; I respect all religions and am not like the extremists on either side.
Do you get support from the Jewish community?
Oh yes, a lot of Jews support justice and understand that they are not just connected to one community, but that what is bad for me is bad for them.
I got a lot of respect from [Jews], and some even came with me sometimes – rabbis, professors, religious people – to [peaceful protests] on Fridays.
So some Jews support your goals, and others say that having Muslims pray at a mosque in the center of the Old City is dangerous. How do you answer that?
I have seen tourists from all over the world climb the minaret and take pictures, and what risk was there? They are afraid of people being up on the minaret. They also don’t want a disturbance of the peace with the loudspeaker [calling to prayer], and we said okay, we just want to pray, we don’t need to use the minaret or the loudspeaker, we will keep quiet. If someone breaks the law, then please arrest them – the country has police, a court system, no?
Abu Rass: There are other mosques, like in Jaffa and Herzliya, that are in the middle of Jewish communities, and if those can open, then why not in Beersheba, where we have a growing number of Muslims moving here for a better quality of life? Here we have around 6,000 residents paying taxes, and we want to know, what rights [do] we have? Almost nothing.
This mosque story highlights a larger view of [discrimination].
We don’t even have a school for our children. Our kids go to Jewish schools or travel to outlying Beduin villages where the level of education is very low. My children go to a Jewish school, and I am trying to preserve their Arab and Muslim culture, but they don’t speak Arabic very well at all.
We are educated; according to my research, the level of education of the Arab population in Beersheba is higher than the general population. We have a middle-class population of people with master’s degrees – teachers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, professionals, academics. Beersheba is a coexistence city; I never once had an experience of racism.
I have rented apartments here, no problem. This is a cosmopolitan city, not just now, but historically.
The city has been concerned about civic disorder and making noise. Muslims are willing to have the mosque operate on low profile. Do it without a megaphone, without going up to the minaret. I think this is not the real issue. Of course they are worried about economics, making money from a museum. But also I think the bigger issue is that they are not happy thinking that more Muslims will come to live in Beersheba. But they will come regardless.
Have there been threats?
Once, a local who is an extremist came and threw garbage on the grounds to prevent us from praying there. It was disgusting and stupid and inhumane.
But I am not angry about the extremists, they are just people without common sense. I think that if there were research, they might find that the majority of Jews are not against Muslim prayers.
What does Islam say about praying in a mosque?
Abu Rass:
You can pray where you want – in the shuk, in your office, on the street, but Islam encourages you to pray together if you can. Islam is a high-context culture; people are very close to each other. The idea of individualism is new to Islam. It’s a social club. The mosque is not only for prayers, but is usually a complex that also holds a library, kindergarten, a place to study. I have my prayer-rug here in my office, but I prefer to pray with others, and Friday – the most important prayers – we must do it together. Do you know how many people close their offices Fridays to drive and find a mosque, and hurt themselves financially? We need even more than one mosque, and we need to think of a new solution.
Now what?
This [verdict] is sad, but not unexpected after all these years. It is no good for a country to have disputes between citizens and officials, and we will definitely do something. Beduin here have no services, no respect. This is a disaster... Not just for me, but for Jews, for the State of Israel. We will not take this quietly.
Abu Rass: It is true that the court rejected the municipality’s position, and the majority of judges are trying to keep the Muslim character of the mosque by suggesting an Islamic museum, but we believe the court could go further and give respect to the religious rights of Muslims and recognize the building as a mosque. So we will soon ask the planning committee to “change” the function of the building from a “museum” to a mosque.