x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Court ruling on museum site rankles

An Israeli court last week gives permission for the construction of a museum on a historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM // Palestinians have been left fuming after an Israeli court last week gave the go-ahead for the construction of a museum that will be built partly on a historic Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem. The Israeli Supreme Court, in a 119-page ruling, found that the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles, the organisers behind the US$250 million (Dh918m) "Museum of Tolerance", had gone through all the proper legal channels and that the cemetery had not been used for 60 years and therefore could not be considered sacred ground. But Islamic authorities, activists and families of those buried at the Mamila cemetery (properly the Ma Manillah or "Safety of God" cemetery) have protested the plans and warned that building a museum on the site will only inflame passions in this already volatile city. "There is no respect for the dead," said Adnan Hussein, the Palestinian Authority-appointed governor of Jerusalem. "This is very provocative." The cemetery is a historic site that dates back centuries. Mohammed Dajani, a former official with the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem, said it contained the bodies of some of those who fought with Salahedin (Saladin) when he reconquered the city from Christian crusaders. "They call this tolerance," Mr Dajani said. "It is a crime. Israel wants to erase any Arab and Muslim history here." Mr Dajani, 65, can trace his own family back 300 years at the cemetery with the tomb of Ahmed Dajani. "How many generations is that?" he asked as he walked through the tombstones in the twilight one recent evening. "Why do Israelis not think ahead? Can't they see that they only cause more hatred and that it is future generations who will pay the price?" Rabbi Marvin Hier, of the Wiesenthal Center, rejected the criticism. "Had there been concern from 1960, we wouldn't be having this conversation," he said. The Wiesenthal Center said when the Jerusalem municipality built a car park on part of the cemetery and laid sewage pipes through it, similar protests were not heard. Rabbi Heir maintains the cemetery is no longer sacred ground and has not been considered as such by Muslims for decades. "Nobody protested. This cannot be dismissed. There were no protests at all." Rabbi Hier said he had no qualms about building the museum on the site and that he was "100 per cent convinced" the court's decision was the correct one. He also did not see any incongruity in the fact that a museum dedicated to spreading the concept of tolerance, "social responsibility and mutual respect", should have caused such upset. "Whatever offence we have caused, it is not constant with Muslim teaching," Rabbi Hier said. "You're never going to please everyone. Its location is on the grounds of an abandoned cemetery." Both Mr Husseini, whose ancestors are also buried at the ground, and Mr Dajani said there had been protests when the municipality built a car park. They also pointed out that between 1948 and 1967 the city had been divided and the cemetery had been on the western, Israeli side. "When the Zionists occupied West Jerusalem against UN resolutions in 1948 Palestinians fled. That meant there was no one left to look after the cemetery," Mr Husseini said. Gershon Baskin, head of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information, said while the entire process had been entirely legal, the "bottom line is they should not even have thought about putting this museum here". "But we're talking about a project that costs $250 million. Its big bucks and big interests. This is very much about money. I don't think the Wiesenthal Center is interested in tolerance." The sprawling complex is designed by Frank Gehry, the US architect whose futuristic buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, have become tourist attractions around the world. The court case against the project was brought just after the project was announced two years ago when Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, came to Jerusalem for the ground-breaking ceremony. "We wrote a letter to the US consul general in Jerusalem protesting that a US governor should be a part of this," Mr Husseini said. "But we heard nothing." Mr Dajani was part of the group who brought the case but said he never had much hope for the legal proceedings. "From the beginning I didn't believe in the court case. When your enemy is your judge what can you expect?" okarmi@thenational.ae