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Israeli forces besiege Palestinian cemetery outside Jerusalem's Old City, prevent burial

Dec. 5, 2016 3:24 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 5, 2016 5:58 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (Ma’an) -- Israeli forces Monday at noon besieged the Palestinian Bab al-Rahma cemetery outside occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City, denying the entry of Palestinians attempting to bury the body of a recently deceased woman.

Eyewitnesses told Ma’an that Israeli forces suddenly surrounded the cemetery following early afternoon prayers and prevented the burial under the pretext that the cemetery was established on Israeli state land that was confiscated in order to be used for building a “national park.”

Locals added that earlier Monday morning, Israeli forces had detained two members of the deceased woman’s family who were trying to open a grave in the cemetery to prepare it for the burial.

An Israeli police spokesperson said they were unaware of the incidents.

Bab al-Rahma, meaning Door of Mercy, runs along the eastern wall of Jerusalem's Old City and has been in use for more than 1,000 years.

The cemetery has been the site of escalating tensions and controversy in recent months, since Israeli authorities have seemingly been enforcing policies as a result of a September 2015 seizure of parts of the cemetery to be used for a national park trail.

Head of the committee for the preservation of Islamic cemeteries in Jerusalem, Mustafa Abu Zahra, told Ma'an at the time that part of the cemetery, including gravesites, was fenced off as part of the confiscation.

Abu Zahra said that the Israeli authorities "claimed they were putting a court decision into effect," but he said that the authorities had given no evidence of a court ruling backing their plans to seize parts of the cemetery for the proposed national park.

Abu Zahra added that documents existed that proved the land belongs to the Islamic Endowment, which controls the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. He said the documents clearly show the exact borders of the cemetery.

In September of this year, Israeli Nature and Parks Authority forces sealed two pre-dug unused graves in the cemetery.

In November, Israeli Nature and Parks Authority forces raided the cemetery and demolished six graves and other gravestones that were reportedly crumbling.

Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, the director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, told Ma’an that the authorities claimed the six graves were on part of the 40 percent of the cemetery that the government had confiscated for the park.

Al-Kiswani countered the claim, citing official documents that state the graves that were demolished were owned by the al-Husseini and al-Ansari families.

An Israeli Nature and Parks Authority spokesperson was not immediately available for comment at the time.

Mahmoud al-Habbash, a Palestinian Authority (PA) adviser on religious and Islamic affairs, condemned the grave demolitions in a statement, calling the demolitions a sign of “Israeli political confusion” following the recent UNESCO resolution denouncing Israeli violations at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

The resolution caused a political and media uproar in Israel, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming that the UN agency had “denied the over 3,000 year old connection between the Jewish people and its holiest site in Jerusalem,” due to the fact the resolution only referred to the Muslim name for the holy site, and not the Jewish name, the Temple Mount.

Al-Habbash added that the demolitions were “a crime that Israel must be punished for, in accordance with international law.” He stressed the sanctity of the the Bab al-Rahma cemetery, as it is considered an Islamic heritage site and part of the Al-Aqsa compound.

Director al-Kiswani previously told Ma’an that "not only does the Israeli occupation go after living Muslims, but even the dead are not safe."

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