No place for Muslims to pray in Beer Sheva

Palestinians have not been able to pray in Beer Sheva’s Big Mosque since 1948.

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours The Electronic Intifada

Encircled by a grey, metal fence, the Big Mosque in Beer Sheva is an impressive Ottoman-era structure with a towering minaret, white dome and intricate metal detailing on its many windows.

Closed off by the Israeli authorities since 1991, it is suffering from neglect. And after the Israeli high court ruled last month that it should be turned into a museum of Islamic culture instead of being open to prayer, the mosque is once again at the heart of a battle between the area’s Muslim residents and the municipality.

“All the Arab citizens in Beer Sheva don’t have a mosque or place to pray. They asked the city to renovate the mosque so that they can use it to pray and the city refused,” explained Jaber Abu Kaf, a resident of Umm Bateen, a Bedouin village just south of Beer Sheva and a representative of the Regional Council for Unrecognized Bedouin Villages (RCUV) in the Negev.

“As Muslims, we refuse for a mosque like this to be changed into a museum. We ask for the mosque to be used for people to pray,” Abu Kaf told The Electronic Intifada.

Ten years of deliberations

In August 2002, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel — along with the Association for the Support and Protection of the Rights of the Bedouin in Israel, the Islamic Committee in the Naqab (Negev), and 23 Palestinian citizens of Israel from Beer Sheva — submitted a petition to the Israeli high court demanding that the Big Mosque of Beer Sheva be re-opened for prayer.

The Big Mosque was built in 1906 for the use of the Muslim residents of Beir al-Sabe — the original Arabic name of the town which has since been Hebraized to Beer Sheva. Residents and Bedouin communities throughout the Naqab used the mosque for worship until the State of Israel was created in 1948 and Beir al-Sabe ethnically cleansed. From 1948 until 1953, the mosque was used as a court and prison. Then, the structure was used as a museum until 1991, when its contents were finally emptied and the mosque was closed by the state.

In essence, thousands of Muslim residents of contemporary Beer Sheva — and more than 180,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel living in nearby communities — have been denied access to the mosque since 1948.

Latest chapter in a history of injustice

“The opening of the mosque in Beer Sheva is one of the rights that should be given to Beer Sheva’s Muslim citizens and one of the services that Beer Sheva should offer the people of the area,” explained Adel Badir, a lawyer from Adalah who has worked on the case since 2003, shortly after the ruling was delivered on 22 June.

Instead, the municipality of Beer Sheva argued to the high court that the Big Mosque should be used as a general museum. The mosque currently sits a few meters from the Negev Museum, which was built on mosque lands and is housed in an Ottoman-era building known as the Governor’s House. The museum houses pieces of contemporary Israeli art — including video installations, photographs and paintings — all related to the Negev region.

The municipality argued that opening the Big Mosque for prayer would lead to violence and disturb the peace in the community, but did not specify how or why this would be the case. Indeed, high court Justice Salim Jubran criticized the municipality’s argument and asked whether the municipality was saying “that religious ritual by their very nature led to fighting and conflict, or whether it claimed that it was specifically Muslim worship that involved something that could result in confrontations between groups that would otherwise enjoy normal relations with one another,” according to a statement released by Adalah on 24 June (“Israeli Supreme Court Rules to Turn Big Mosque in Beer el-Sabe into an ‘Islamic Museum’”).

According to Badir, the idea that the mosque would create problems in Beer Sheva is wholly unfounded.

“The Beer Sheva municipality’s claim that the opening of the Beer Sheva mosque will cause problems is a weak and mistaken one. There are many mosques in mixed cities. In Herzliya, Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Haifa there are mosques and there isn’t any problem,” Badir said.

According to the same Adalah statement, Justice Ayala Procaccia stated in her ruling that “concerning the stated moral considerations, I doubt that the municipality has given any consideration whatsoever to the legitimate expectations of Muslims to restore their religious connection to the mosque.”

Converting the mosque into a museum of Islamic culture and religion, she added, would “achieve the objectives of the petition, if partially, by restoring the link between the Muslim community and the Big Mosque, as a site that is connected to the cultural values and history of this community.”

Destruction, neglect of holy places since 1948

In December 2004, the Nazareth-based Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) released a report on the destruction and abuse of Muslim and Christian holy places in Israel. According to the report, not only has the Israeli government not fulfilled its obligations to protect the religious rights of Palestinian citizens of the state — which number approximately 1.6 million, or 20 percent of the total population — it has also actively denied their right to practice their religions freely and maintain their places of worship (“Sanctity Denied: The Destruction and Abuse of Muslim and Christian Holy Places in Israel”).

“The destruction of Christian and Muslim holy places should be seen in the context of the wide-scale destruction of more than 400 Palestinian villages inside the borders of the new Jewish state during and for many years after the 1948 war,” the report adds. HRA estimates that 249 Muslim and Christian places of worship located inside the boundary between the West Bank and Israel had been destroyed or made unusable since 1948.

The State of Israel has also denied Palestinians access to religious sites, thereby allowing them to deteriorate due to lack of care and neglect, and has allowed places of worship to be converted for other purposes by Jewish communities, the report adds.

The report mentions that Bedouin rights activist Nuri al-Okbi “was arrested for writing ‘This is a mosque’ on the museum sign that remains outside the mosque [in Beer Sheva], and a criminal file was opened against him by the police.”

“This accusation of vandalizing public property was unique,” the report adds. “No police action has been taken over the steady growth of graffiti that has accumulated inside and outside the mosque over the years of its closure and dereliction. In January 2004 the court ordered that he pay a 1,000 shekel [$290 US] fine or serve seven days in prison.”

Ultimately, the HRA finds that “Israel is reneging on its promises and duties under international law to protect the holy places of the two other major faiths in the Holy Land and instead allowing the destruction and mistreatment of sites sacred to Muslims and Christians.”

Such restrictions violate international law, such as Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include … freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

Article 27 of the Covenant also states: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”

Appeal to the planning authorities

According to Adalah attorney Adel Badir, the Israeli high court stated in its ruling that the petitioners in Beer Sheva could approach the planning authorities to request a change of purpose for the Big Mosque from a general museum to a place of worship. Should the planning authorities reject this request, the case can again be taken to the courts.

“This doesn’t finish here,” Badir said. “We will go to the planning authorities and make an application to open this mosque for prayer, not just as a museum.”

For Jaber Abu Kaf, from the Bedouin village of Umm Batin near Beer Sheva, the court’s decision to turn the Big Mosque into an Islamic museum doesn’t address the needs of the area’s Muslim residents and how they continue to lack a suitable place to pray.

“There is no mosque in Beer Sheva. People go to pray in the Arab villages around Beer Sheva, like Tel Sheva, Lakiah, Hura and Rahat. They travel far distances to pray on Friday. Why can’t they pray in the mosque in Beer Sheva?” Abu Kaf said.

“There should be justice and there is no reason not to give people the opportunity to pray [at the Big Mosque],” he added. “We request that the Israeli government and all those responsible allow Muslims to pray there.”

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at