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Israel plans to build 'museum of tolerance' on Muslim graves

Donald Macintyre / London independent | February 10 2006

Skeletons are being removed from the site of an ancient Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem to make way for a $150m (£86m) "museum of tolerance" being built for the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

Palestinians have launched a legal battle to stop the work at what was the city's main Muslim cemetery. The work is to prepare for the construction of a museum which seeks the promotion of "unity and respect among Jews and between people of all faiths".

Israeli archaeologists and developers have continued excavating the remains of people buried at the site - which was a cemetery for at least 1,000 years - despite a temporary ban on work granted by the Islamic Court, a division of Israel's justice system. Police have been taking legal advice on whether the order is legally binding. The Israeli High Court is to hear a separate case brought by the Al Aqsa Association of the Islamic Movement in Israel next week.

The project, which a spokesman said had been conceived in partnership with the Jerusalem municipality and the Israeli government, was launched at a ceremony in 2004 by a cast of dignitaries ranging from Ehud Olmert, who is currently the acting Prime Minister, to the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Israeli branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre declined to comment yesterday and has had no role in the project.

Durragham Saif, the lawyer who brought the Islamic Court petition on behalf of three Palestinian families, Al Dijani, Nusseibeh and Bader Elzain, all of whom have members buried at the cemetery, said: "It's unbelievable, it's immoral. You cannot build a museum of tolerance on the graves of other people. Imagine this kind of thing in the [United] States or England. And this is the Middle East where events are sensitive. If this goes ahead in this way it is going to cause the opposite thing to tolerance."
Mr Saif said he had written to the Israeli State Attorney, Menachem Mazuz, seeking police enforcement of the original order. He said on a visit to the site he had entered three out of five tents where excavations were being carried out. "I was shocked to see open graves and tens of whole skeletons there," he said.

Ikrema Sabri, the Mufti of Jerusalem, demanded a halt to the excavations and said the Muslim religious authorities had not been consulted on the dig. Saying that the cemetery was in use for 15 centuries and that friends of the Prophet Mohamed were buried there, the Mufti declared: "There should be a complete cessation of work on the cemetery because it is sacred for Muslims."

Under Israel's "absentee property" law the cemetery was taken over by the Custodian of Absentee Property after the 1948 war. Mr Saif said the Custodian had no right to sell the cemetery to the Jerusalem municipality in 1992. While parties to the work are resting part of their case on what they say was an 1894 ruling by the then Sharia court that the sanctity of a cemetery could be lifted, Mr Sabri said that ruling meant that only a Muslim could make such a decision.

Osnat Goaz, a spokeswoman for the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is carrying out the excavations, said it was common in Jerusalem to build on cemeteries. Adding that in such cases the bones were reburied, she said: "Israel is more crowded with ancient artefacts than any other country in the world. If we didn't build on former cemeteries, we would never build."

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