SANCTITY DENIED? THE DESTRUCTION AND ABUSE OF MUSLIM AND CHRISTIAN HOLY PLACES IN ISRAEL
At the Declaration of Independence of the state of Israel in May 1948 the country’s founders made an unequivocal pledge: the Israeli state, they wrote, “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture” and “will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.” This promise was made with a view to allaying international concern that the founding of a Jewish state would lead to the privileging of the holy places of one religion — Judaism — over the two other monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam, that count the Holy Land as the cradle of their birth.
Israel’s actions in the intervening 56 years, as this report will show, are evidence that, not only has this promise been ignored, but that in practice the authorities have intentionally and actively encouraged or supported the destruction and abuse of holy places belonging to the Christian and Muslim faiths. The detailed research of the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) in Nazareth reveals gross injustice committed by the Israeli authorities since the founding of the Jewish state. We have compiled a list of all the known mosques and churches inside Israel either destroyed by Israel during and after the 1948 war or made absolutely inaccessible to the local Arab population who once used them. It shows that at least 250 places of worship have suffered such abuse at the hands of Israel.
This would be appalling enough, but our report also reveals that this injustice is continuing to this day. Despite attempts by existing Arab communities to reclaim their holy sites, the state continues to exclude them ? in violation of international human rights law and the pledge of its own Declaration of Independence.
In fact, in most cases Israel was careful not to destroy mosques and churches that fell into its hands in 1948. While it destroyed more than 400 Palestinian villages, ensuring that the 750,000 Palestinian refugees from the war had no homes to return to, it usually left places of worship untouched. This suggested either that Israel regarded holy sites as having a different status from private homes or that it feared a backlash from the international community if it did not show suitable respect for these sacred places.
The neglect, destruction and abuse of these places of worship in the intervening 56 years, however, suggest that Israel’s intentions were cynical rather than honourable. There is hardly a week that passes without news emerging of a fresh, and unpunished, offence against an ancient mosque, church, graveyard or shrine. Even when such abuse springs from the actions of individual Jewish citizens, such as vandalism, it is clearly sanctioned by public policy and its implementation by state officials.
Various strategies have been devised by the authorities to dissuade Arab citizens from trying to access, care for and use their holy sites.
Denial of access
Many places of worship have been declared “closed zones” which cannot be accessed without special permits, and these permits are never issued to Arab citizens. Other buildings have been made inaccessible simply because their doors and windows have been bricked up, or fences placed around them. At Hittin a steel fence has been erected around the perimeter of the 900-year-old mosque so that it cannot be reached. The gates of the Great Mosque of Bir al-Seba’ (Beersheva) have been padlocked even though there is a thriving Muslim population in the city with nowhere else to worship.
Atmosphere of intimidation
In many other cases Arab citizens are effectively dissuaded from accessing their holy places because they are now situated in the middle of land that has been transferred to Jewish communities. An atmosphere of intimidation and hostility prevails against Arabs trying to enter these areas. For example, the only way to access the church and mosque in the destroyed village of Suhmata is for visitors to park their cars in a layby by a gate at the entrance to a field of cows belonging to a Jewish farming community and then walk on foot. However, local Arab residents report that cars stopping by the gate have their licence plates recorded and their owners risk prosecution.
Holy Places Put to Sacrilegious Use
Although Arab citizens are forbidden access to these holy places, Jewish citizens often enjoy unrestricted access. Many communal Jewish farms have been given the lands of destroyed villages and use the surviving mosques and shrines as animal pens or storage depots for fodder. In April 2004 a Jewish farmer converted the Ain al-Zaytouna Mosque near Safad into a cow shed, removing the stone that bears both the mosque’s name and the date of its construction. The walls are now covered in Hebrew graffiti. In other cases private individuals or Jewish communities have been given permission to change the use of mosques. In Ein Hod, south of Haifa, the mosque has become a bar, while the mosques of Ashkelon and Caesaria have become restaurants. The Ibsesu mosque in Bir al-Seba’ is currently a shop. In January 2004 Bir al-Seba’ municipality opened bidding for local building contractors to convert the city’s Great Mosque into a museum, in spite of a pending court petition to halt the work.
Holy Places Taken Over by Jewish Extremists
Other Jewish groups, usually comprising religious extremists, have been allowed by the authorities to take over mosques or shrines and convert them into Jewish places of worship, even though these sites have never been deconsecrated by the Muslim authorities. A tomb in the al-Nabi Rubin mosque, on the Tel Aviv-Ashdod highway, is now covered in Hebrew script and is used by Jewish worshippers. In June 2004 it was reported that Jewish extremists had broken into the shrine of Sheikh Sima’an, near Kofr Saba, and replaced the Islamic symbols with Jewish ones, refashioned the grave inside to accord with Jewish religious custom and then padlocked the site so they had sole access. Finally they placed signs on neighbouring roads to identify the location of the new place of worship.
Official Threats to Arab Citizens Reclaiming Sites
Those internal refugees who have tried to repair holy places belonging to their original communities or reclaim them as places of worship have faced intimidation and threats from the police, state officials and local Jewish residents. In al-Manshiya, near Acre, police have placed fines on the cars of Arab citizens whenever they try to visit their remote mosque. When they have challenged this policy of harassment they have faced threats of arrest. Worshippers at the Great Mosque in Bir al-Seba’ have had their shoes confiscated when they tried to pray closeby, and one of their leaders was arrested for writing, “This is a mosque”, on a sign on the building. In the Galilee, Arab citizens have been repeatedly prevented from praying in the 240-year-old mosque at Ghabisiya. Their prayer mats and Qurans have been removed, and one of their leaders arrested.
Demolition as Reprisal
When worshippers have pressed on with reclaiming holy sites, despite all these obstacles, they have been met with the ultimate reprisal. The former inhabitants of Um al-Faraj, who were expelled from their village north-east of Acre in 1953, campaigned for many years to regain access to their mosque. They also lobbied against its use by a local Jewish farming community, Moshav Ben Ami, as a storage barn. Shortly afterwards, in December 1997, the mosque was destroyed. No one was ever prosecuted, but the former villagers feel sure that the moshav was behind the destruction. Similarly, the mosque at Sarafand was destroyed in July 2000 after the former villagers repaired it and started to use it. And in February 2000, members of Moshav Yashin destroyed the mosque of Wadi Hawarith two weeks after its renovation by Muslims had been completed. In none of these cases was anyone prosecuted. The effect of these unofficial demolitions has been to dissuade Muslim and Christian worshippers from pressing their claims to holy sites.
As a result, holy places are being allowed to deteriorate and fall into disrepair. The Catholic church in al-Bassa has already lost its second floor, and the rest is near collapse. At Suhmata in the northern Galilee the church and mosque are roofless shells. Nothing is also being done to prevent the recurring vandalism inflicted on these sites. Many have spray-paint across their walls saying “DEATH TO THE ARABS”. State officials appear uninterested in protecting these sites on behalf of their worshippers, and the police never bring prosecutions. In March 2004 arsonists set fire to the Forty Mosque in Beit Shean, which is now under the responsibility of the Public Parks Authority. There was extensive damage, including to the roof, which collapsed. When Muslim officials tried to photograph the damage they had their identity cards confiscated by the police. It was also reported in June 2004 that a resident of Tiberias tried to set fire to al-Omery Mosque in the city centre with a Molotov Cocktail, as he shouted: “I don’t want to see Arabs or Muslims before my eyes… I will burn the lot of them!” There have been repeated attempts to burn down al-Omery Mosque and the neighbouring al-Bahar Mosque in Tiberias.
A similar picture emerges in regard to Muslim and Christian cemeteries. These are offered no protection against planning authorities, which build over them with apparent disregard for Muslim and Christian sensitivities. The cemetery of Deir Yassin, in the western suburbs of Jerusalem, is partially obliterated by a main road. What remains can only be reached by scrambling down an earth embankment. Headstones are broken and graves untended. At al-Bassa, bones were turned up by bulldozers and left as contractors built the industrial estate. At Sarafand al-‘Amar, west of Ramle, the authorities cleared five graves to allow the expansion of the Jewish settlement of Tsirifin. The graves were moved into one area, covered with sand and football pitch laid over them. In February 2004 a construction company, Maatz, damaged much of the cemetery of the village of Arab al-Sbeh when it parked bulldozers over the graves. Headstones were used as rubble to build pavements and for drainage. And, two months later, in April 2004, Maatz was reported to be laying stones over graves at the destroyed village of Tira, south of Haifa, in preparation for building a road on behalf of the municipality of Tirat Karmel.
The contempt in which these sacred sites are held by the Israeli authorities and the general public is compounded by other aspects of overt discrimination. Despite the Protection of Holy Places Law of 1967, which protects all holy places “from any desecration or other violation”, the Israeli authorities have admitted to the US State Department that they recognise “only Jewish places under the Protection of Holy Places Law”. This is reflected in the budgetary allocations given to the different faiths. Although the Christian, Muslim and Druze population comprise 18% of the population they received only 1.9% of the Ministry of Religious Affairs budget in 2003. The Ministry has not budgeted for the building of a single mosque since the founding of the state, even though the Arab population has grown eightfold.
The report also shows that there has been a continuing failure to develop non-Jewish archeological sites inside Israel and that the Antiquities Authority is a politicised body trying to promote the Jewish narrative of the country. This has also been reflected in the development of tourism inside the country, with Jewish sites such as Safad and Tiberias receiving preferential treatment over Arab locales such as Nazareth and Acre.
Finally, the report maintains that there has been a widespread attempt to intimidate and threaten the non-Jewish religious authorities inside Israel, as part of attempts to silence opposition to its treatment of Muslim and Christian holy sites. Christian leaders have faced constant harassment, from the refusal to approve the election of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Erinaios I, through extensive security checks at the airport of the Latin Patriarch Michael Sabbah to the failure to approve the work visas of dozens of Catholic clergy.
The treatment of the leaders of the two largest non-Jewish denominations inside Israel, Sunni Islam and Greek Orthodoxy, is also a particularly disturbing recent development. The spokesman of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Dr Theodosis Hanna, and the leader of Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raad Salah, have both been targeted by the security services. Dr Hanna, who has been singled out for harassment by security forces at demonstrations in which he has participated, was taken for interrogation at the Russian compound in Jerusalem for seven hours in August 2002. And in May 2003 Sheikh Raad Salah was arrested in a midnight swoop. He continues to be held in custody throughout the proceedings of his trial, even though the prosecution has yet to produce any factual evidence that suggests his involvement in activities other than providing humanitarian assistance to residents of the occupied Palestinian territories.
There seems little doubt that the purpose of all these oppressive measures is the same:
These political considerations, however, violate the justified expectations of the Palestinian people and the international community that Israel, as the guardian of the Holy Land, acts to preserve all holy sites without regard to religious difference. Such illegitimate considerations also negate the rights enshrined in international law that Israel’s Arab citizens, many of whom are internal refugees from the destroyed villages in which these places of worship stand, should be able to pray freely and act to preserve their holy sites.
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For further information, please contact:
Muhammad Zeidan, Director
Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA)
PO Box 215, Nazareth 16101, Israel
telephone: +972 (0)4 6561923
fax: +972 (0)4 6564934