Palestinians see Israel’s targeting of historic cemeteries since 1948 as an attempt to rewrite them out of history.
Omar Jamal recalls running as fast as he could to save his grandfather’s grave as Israeli occupation forces in Jerusalem began demolitions at Al-Yousufiya Muslim Cemetery.
The demolitions followed a decision by Israeli authorities’ to build a Jewish “national park”, set to open in 2022 on top of the centuries-old cemetery.
The Israeli municipality previously said burial sites in the large cemetery will not be harmed, but last month municipality workers bulldozed some of the graves in one section, unearthing human remains and scattering bones.
Jamal was worried that his grandfather’s grave, which until now remains untouched, would soon face the same fate.
“When I reached the cemetery, I could not believe what I saw there. There were several bulldozers at the site and heavy security presence. Plans to build a park on the bodies of the dead makes no sense,” Jamal told TRT World.
Jamal found himself in the company of dozens of other Palestinians whose relatives are buried in the same cemetery. They were also rallying against the demolition order.
Some, including Jamal, pleaded with the soldiers to have the bulldozers back down.
Israeli forces responded by beating the protesters and firing stun grenades and tear gas into the crowd. A handful were arrested and some were temporarily banned from visiting the cemetery - including Jamal.
“When I saw the graves being bulldozed, I asked the soldiers why they were doing this? They hit me with batons and arrested me,” Jamal said.
Kefah Mohammed al-Abbasi’s late husband, who died of cancer in 2018, is also buried in the same cemetery.
Since the demolition order came through, al-Abbasi and her daughter have been taking shifts at the cemetery to ensure that his grave is protected at all times.
"We went there for about ten days. We decided to sit by his grave to protect it from being attacked. Other Palestinians, who were also protecting the graves of their loved ones, supported us, offering us water and food while we were there,” she said.
“But while we were there, the soldiers attacked my daughter and other protestors. They beat her and tried to push her out of the graveyard."
The loss of historical Palestinian property
Adjacent to the eastern side of the Al-Yousufiya Cemetery is the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound, which dates to the Ayyubid dynasty of the late 12th and early 13th century.
It is one of Jerusalem’s endowed properties and the burial site of historical Islamic figures, prominent scholars, and hundreds of Palestinians/Jordanians killed during the 1967 war.
The imminent destruction of the Al-Yousufiya Cemetery began looming over Jerusalem’s Palestinian communnity well before demolition orders were given last month.
The desecration of cemeteries, along with Muslim holy sites, began right after the Nakba (the Catastrophe) and the subsequent establishment of Israel in 1948.
According to Palestinian American historian Rashid Khalidi, before the establishment of Israel in 1948, all public religious endowments, including mosques, churches, cemeteries and holy sites, were under communal control.
After 1948 — and the destruction of over 400 Palestinian villages — all Muslim endowment property throughout the country was taken over by Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property.
Over time, the properties were delegated to the Israel Lands Authority, state bodies like the Jewish National Fund, or placed in private hands.
As a result, many mosques, cemeteries and holy sites were declared neglected, restricted or put to secular use.
‘Judaising the land’
Muslim cemeteries in Jerusalem date back centuries. One of the biggest and most historically significant is the Mamilla Cemetery, which spans more than 20 hectares of land.
Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry vowed to protect and respect the site in 1948, proclaiming it “as one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries.”
Despite Israel designating the cemetery as an antiquities site, a parking lot was built on the northern quadrant of the cemetery in 1964. Israeli authorities later built “Independence Park” over the west end.
In the same cemetery, the Leonardo Plaza hotel, a Jewish religious school, and the ‘Museum of Tolerance’ were built. An Insurance building and several landfills were also erected over the eastern side of the cemetery.
“They were all built on 400 graves on the remains of the bodies of our fathers and ancestors,” Mostafa Tawfik Abu Zahra, member of the Islamic Higher committee and President of the Committee for the Preservation of Islamic Cemeteries in Jerusalem, told TRT World.
“The human remains were collected in boxes and were moved outside the cemetery to an undisclosed location.”
Palestinians see Israel’s targeting of cemeteries as an attempt to completely erase Palestinian history attached to the land.
"In 1965, Israel launched what it called its national 'Land Leveling Project' in Palestine by the participation of 20 national Israeli associations, including its army, aiming to erase all traces of Palestinian life there,” Abdel Razek Al-Matani, an archeologist and PhD in Islamic Archeology of Palestine Land, explained.
“Since the Nakba in 1948, about 90 percent of archeological monuments, as well as Muslim and Arab graveyards, have been demolished while many more are [in line] for demolition."
Located at the eastern wall of Al Aqsa Mosque, Bab al-Rahma is another historic Islamic cemetery in Jerusalem. It is an extension of the Al-Yousufiya Cemetery and is believed to contain many graves of the Prophet Muhammad’s Companions.
Demolition of the cemetery began in 2015 when Israeli authorities announced they would seize sections of the cemetery to build a national park trail, effectively banning burials there.
Abu Zahra, head of the Preservation of Islamic Cemeteries in Jerusalem, said the demolition of cemeteries are part of a larger Israeli policy to target centuries-old Islamic sites.
"Israel is trying to Judaise the land and the graveyards by building Jewish institutions in order to erase the Arab identity of the holy city of Jerusalem,” he said.
Rules and regulations imposed by Europe and the Vatican help prevent Israel from attacking Christian-Palestinian cemeteries.
“Foreign powers rein, push and prevent Israel from attacking Christian graves,” Al-Matani said.
However, in the past few years, dozens of Christian graves were vandalised across several cities.
What does International law say?
According to Amnesty International, the extensive appropriation and destruction of occupied Palestinian land and property in order to expand Israeli settlements breaches rules of international humanitarian law. This also applies to the Palestinians displaced from their homes.
The Hague Regulations of 1907 state that the occupying power is only allowed a very limited use of the occupied population’s public property (for military or security purposes).
Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
It also prohibits the “individual or mass forcible transfers as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory.”
However, since 1967, almost 15,000 Palestinians holding a Jerusalem ID have had their residency rights revoked by Israel and approximately 620,000 Israeli settlers have moved into the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.
Without a Jerusalem ID, Palestinians lose the right to access the graves of their families, increasing the likelihood that what is left of the historic cemeteries will end up neglected and eventually demolished.
Even with a Jerusalem ID, it is difficult for Palestinians to acquire access and burial permits from the state.
Back in Al-Yousufiya Cemetery, Omar Jamal returns to stand guard over his grandfather’s grave before the end of prohibition orders.
He says he is determined to protect the grave of his grandfather as well as those of other Palestinians.
"I call on President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah, and the international community to stop this massacre. All Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank must act as one man to change this reality."
With reporting by Siham Shamalakh in Gaza