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Cemetery dispute opens rare rift in Jerusalem

Sept. 7, 2012 11:25 P.M. (Updated: Sept. 12, 2012 12:46 P.M.)
By: Maath Musleh
JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- Palestinians fight fiercely to preserve the Arab identity of the occupied Jerusalem, their most sacred city. But they suffer from the occupation’s restrictions on Islamic cemeteries’ expansion in the city, targeting the dead as well as the alive.

In the Islamic cemeteries of Bab al-Rahmeh, Mamanullah (known as Mamilla to Israelis) and others, a fierce battle between Palestinians and the occupation is taking place. This battle is to protect the dead in their graves and the history on the cemeteries’ tombstones.

The Awqaf takes the lead in protecting the Islamic cemeteries through its Committee to Protect the Cemeteries. Amidst this battle against the occupation, the Awqaf has found itself dragged into a totally different battle. The battlefield here is the Bab al-Sahreh cemetery, also known as al-Mujahedin Islamic cemetery. Their opponents this time are their neighbors in the Garden Tomb of Jesus.

The Awqaf, according to an official with the Garden Tomb of Jesus, is expanding the reinforcement of a wall between it and the al-Mujahedin cemetery, but the new construction is still being built on the graveyard's property.

The management of the Garden objects, but they say their only objection is based on the safety of the structure. The Awqaf claim this new construction is necessary for the expansion of new graves in the al-Mujahideen cemetery.

The al-Mujahedin Islamic cemetery is located just outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, on Salah el-Din Street. It traces back to about a 1,000 years. To the west of the cemetery, the Garden Tomb was established under the rule of the Islamic Ottoman Empire in 1894 by a charitable trust based in the United Kingdom.

“The Garden (Tomb) has been here for 118 years and in 1905 the then-controllers of the Muslim cemetery asked the Garden Tomb to build a fence to keep the people in the Garden Tomb from walking into the cemetery,” said Richard Meryon, the director of the Garden Tomb. “It is a perfectly sensible question and absolutely right as good neighbors that we should prevent visitors here from walking into the cemetery.” The stone wall between the cemetery and the Garden Tomb is about five meters high and 50 meters long.

The recent dispute between the Garden Tomb and al-Mujahedin cemetery sparked in June 2010. There was no traceable earlier dispute between both sides according to its archives.

Meryon took position as the director of the Garden Tomb in January 2010. He is an engineer by profession, and spent 30 years as an engineer in the British armed forces. Six months into his appointment as the director of the Garden, the Awqaf resumed building a wall that rises above the original stone wall built in 1905.

Hamza Hijazi, member of the Committee to Protect Cemeteries, along with another Awqaf employee met with Meryon in the Garden Tomb in late July. “We had a very nice meeting here in my office,” said Meryon. “They have agreed to show me the plans for the design of the wall.”

Israeli role

The Garden Tomb director agreed with the Awqaf representatives that they acquire the necessary planning permissions from the Jerusalem municipality to make sure the wall was safe. Meryon also requested that the wall be covered with Jerusalem stone and to raise the Garden’s security fence to the top of the new wall.

Hijazi has also emphasized that they are committed to the promises they made to the management of the Garden. “As Muslims in Jerusalem, we were raised up to respect all holy sites.

"We want to be good neighbors,” he says.

But for Palestinians, involving the municipality and the Israeli court in such a dispute is sensitive due to their role in confiscating lands of Palestinian cemeteries in Jerusalem, especially in the Bab al-Rahmeh and Mamilla cemeteries. Nonetheless, the Awqaf claims their walls are already licensed.

“We acquired the needed permissions from the occupation’s municipality in Jerusalem to build the new wall,” said Hijazi. “The wall was built to prevent the dirt from falling from the cemetery into the Garden and to provide a solution to the lack of Muslim graves in Jerusalem.”

Meryon says the Christian facility has no objection on this point. “The Garden Tomb is absolutely delighted for the (Muslim) cemetery to have more graves,” he said. “But we do not want our wall to be endangered because of a mammoth construction adjacent to it.”

According to the director of the Garden Tomb, the Awqaf started building the wall before they acquired permits from the municipality. The municipality granted the cemetery the necessary license on Dec. 7, 2010, according to Meryon. Prior to that date, the Garden Tomb hired Arieh Klein, an Israeli engineer based in Haifa, to make safety studies on the newly constructed wall.

“He has always adamantly maintained that the Garden Tomb’s wall is now in severe danger of collapse because of the additional weight of the cemetery construction behind it,” said Meryon. “The cemetery wants to achieve high-level graves, five meters above the height of our five-meter stone fence.

"We had many meetings (with the Awqaf) over the next nine months. Eventually the cemetery would not allow me to come back into the cemetery and they would not continue further negotiations. They told me they thought I had not operated as a good neighbor because I had involved the municipality in the planning process.”

The director of the tomb claims that part of the built wall was not licensed by the municipality. According to Meryon, a lot of damage has been done to the security fence and the garden during the construction process.

“On about the 20th of April 2011 we went to the court to get it to (issue an) injunction to stop them from building,” said Meryon. He added that between the first and the second court case the Awqaf has resumed constructing the second wall without a license.

“The second wall is still unlicensed today,” he says. “We issued a court injunction in October 2011 against the municipality for (allowing an) illegal planning process.”

Between October and December 2011, the Garden Tomb held a series of meetings with the Awqaf representatives and the municipality. “We had an out-of-court agreement to bring in an independent engineer to assess both the licensed wall and the unlicensed wall for safety,” said Meryon.

He said that the cemetery management rejected three Israeli engineers that the Garden Tomb nominated to make the assessment. Later on, the Islamic Awqaf nominated eight Palestinian engineers who were all rejected by the Garden Tomb because they were based in East Jerusalem and, according to Meryon, work for the Awqaf.

New accusations

The Garden Tomb went back to the court on March 26, 2012 because “the Awqaf had built burial sites precisely where any engineering re-work would need to be done," says Meryon. The tomb accused the Awqaf of resuming construction despite a court order to stop any further building work or burials.

The cemetery has finished building a wall that rises 2.6 meters above the height of the Garden’s 5-meter stone fence. “All the walls in the cemetery are licensed,” said Hamza. The Municipality of Jerusalem stated to Israel's Maariv newspaper on July 6 that a permit was granted after a review by the city engineer.

In the last court proceedings in July, the judge told the Awqaf to stop all further building work until she convened another court session later this year, according to Meryon.

Many protestant Christians believe that Jesus was crucified on a spot that is within the borders of the cemetery, and Hamza believes the management has ambitions to acquire lands in the cemetery. He accuses the Garden of allowing Christian pilgrims to cross to the cemetery to bury pictures and the ashes of their dead.

“Many visitors of the Garden Tomb have buried in the cemetery altered pictures of the Muslim cemetery and bags with ashes of dead people,” said Hijazi. “The pictures imagine the Muslim cemetery as a Christian site.”

These accusations were denied by the director of the Garden Tomb.

Meryon says that the Garden is only concerned about the safety of quarter of a million visitors a year. “I want to be good neighbors with the Awqaf,” said Meryon.

“At the end of this process, I want to be back in good relations with them.”
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