Fight to save Jaffa’s last Muslim cemetery from Israeli bulldozers

Palestinians from Jaffa protested at a hearing in a Tel Aviv court on 28 February where a judge was to decide if the community would be forced to remove hundreds of graves from the Muslim Tasso cemetery.

Their protest is part of a long struggle to save the last Muslim cemetery in Jaffa.

Israel’s high court endorsed the sale of half of the cemetery to an Israeli investment company in 2008 and after years of legal wrangling upheld the sale again in January.

The investment company now wants to build on the cemetery and in recent weeks attempted to demarcate the land, but was met with opposition from residents.

The investment company then filed a petition demanding that the community dig up the bodies from the graves and stop burying the dead there even though community leaders point out that it is the only Muslim cemetery in the city.

The company also demanded that the Palestinian community pay $4.25 million for using the land in past years.

Residents of Jaffa have formed the Popular Committee for the Defense of Tasso Cemetery to fight the takeover of the land.

The committee organized the protest at the hearing, which led the Israeli judge to leave the courtroom, bringing proceedings to a halt.

Jaffa was until the Nakba – the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias – a major port and one of the most important Palestinian trading and cultural centers.

Since then, the small Palestinian community that survived the mass expulsions and flight has tried to cling on in the face of determined Israeli gentrification efforts to drive them out and erase their history.

Sold under Israel’s “Absentee” law

In 2008, Ahmed Masharawi, a community activist whose family members are buried in the cemetery, sent a letter to Ron Huldai, the Israeli mayor of Tel Aviv, expressing the community’s objections to the sale. Following Jaffa’s ethnic cleansing, Israel annexed the city to the Tel Aviv municipality.

“There is not a Muslim in Jaffa who does not have relatives buried in that cemetery,” Masharawi wrote, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“The court’s decision is like a declaration of war on the city’s Muslim residents.”

The cemetery land, which takes up 20 acres, was sold to the Abu Khadra family by the Armenian Tasso family. The Abu Khadras donated the land to the Islamic Waqf – the entity responsible for Muslim holy sites – in the 1940s.

In 1943, half of the land was turned into a cemetery, according to Haaretz.

After the Nakba, Israel took over the cemetery under its Absentee Property Law which prevents Palestinians from returning to their homes and lands.

In the 1970s, Israel appointed a board of trustees to manage the cemetery and other lands previously managed by the Islamic Waqf.

In 1973, the Israeli-appointed trustees sold the eastern part of the cemetery to a company owned by Israeli businessman Yossi Hasson.

At the time, no bodies had been buried in the eastern part of the cemetery but Palestinians in Jaffa “viewed it as a future expansion site for the cemetery,” according to Haaretz.

The Palestinian community was not even informed of the sale until 1977, “and immediately began pushing for its cancellation,” Haaretz reports. They began burying bodies there in July 1977.

Last Muslim cemetery in Jaffa

The Tasso cemetery, shown in the tweet below, is the last Muslim cemetery in Jaffa.

According to the head of the elected Islamic body in Jaffa Muhammad Durei, Israeli authorities have confiscated all other cemeteries in the district, and in some cases built over the dead.

One example is the Abd al-Nabi cemetery, which was located on the beachfront north of Jaffa. The cemetery became inaccessible to Palestinians once they were exiled from their homes.

Israeli authorities cited Palestinian exile as neglect, confiscated the cemetery and allowed the construction of a Hilton hotel, a park and a parking lot for the British embassy over the graves beginning in 1965, Durei told the publication Arabs 48.

After the Nakba Israelis built a park over the cemetery of the Jaffa district village of Salama, and Tel Aviv University planned to build atop the cemetery of the depopulated village of al-Shaykh Muwannis in 2012.

Settling by burying

Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank, Israeli settlers have buried hundreds of their dead on privately owned Palestinian land as a way to further entrench their presence.

Over 40 percent of graves in Israeli settlements in the West Bank are on privately owned Palestinian land, according to research by Israeli organization Kerem Navot.

The vast majority of those graves are built on land that Israel initially expropriated for “public use” or “security needs,” Haaretz reported.

The case of the Tasso cemetery is reminiscent of Israel’s seizure of the centuries-old Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem several years ago so that the Simon Wiesenthal Center could build a so-called Museum of Tolerance over it.

In December, a Jewish cemetery in Poland was dug up and the bodies dumped to make way for the construction of a parking lot.

That rightly outraged Poland’s Jewish community and made headlines in Israel.

Yet Israel continues its long-standing practice of destroying Muslim cemeteries with no regard for Palestinians, living or dead.



Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.