Demolitions at the Ancient Bab al-Rahma Cemetery?

In recent days, there have been widespread reports, particularly in the Arab press, to the effect that graves located in the ancient Muslim Bab al-Rahma cemetery, owned and run by the Waqf and located along the eastern ramparts of the Old City, north of the Lion Gate, have been destroyed by Israeli Nature and Parks Authority (INPA). The reports are not without foundation, but are also not entirely accurate.

The bare facts are as follows:

  • The area of the cemetery is circumscribed and the cemetery has reached its full capacity.
  • The population of East Jerusalem has more than quadrupled since 1967, soaring from approximately 69,000 in 1967 to around 320,000 today.
  • Very few cemetery plots have been added during this same period.
  • It is mainly Palestinian families from Silwan who seek to be buried in the Bab al-Rahma cemetery, and it is customary to buy the cemetery plots advance, securing future burial at the site.
  • The new plots in question – the ones that are the subject of the demolition reports – are located on lands owned by the Waqf. The area in question is located to the south of the perimeter of the existing cemetery and to the north of the eastern corner Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif containing wall.
  • This area has not, until now, served as part of the cemetery.
  • Years ago, the government of Israel declared all lands in surrounding the Old City a “national park.”
  • This means that even though the land in and around the Bab al-Rahma cemetery is owned by the Waqf, it is nonetheless subject to the authority of the INPA.
  • In its capacity as the authority governing the lands around the cemetery, the INPA is indeed preventing the Waqf from using Waqf-owned lands adjacent to the existing graves in the Bab al-Rahma cemetery for burials and Israeli authorities are today demolishing newly-dug graves to prevent burials taking place.

The larger context is this:

Skirmishing over the expansion of the Bab al-Rahma cemetery has been going on for more than a decade, led by the Public Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, an Israeli movement that gathers a curious mix of prominent Israeli intellectuals, archaeologists, former Israeli security officials and prominent figures form Israel’s ideological right. The Committee views the expansion of the Bab al-Rahma cemetery as a dangerous incursion into an Israeli national park. The Waqf views Israel’s policy as yet another Israeli move to prevent the Waqf from using its own properties to address the genuine needs of the community.

Given the current tensions in all matters relating to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, the issue has the potential of becoming very volatile.

The Committee appealed to the Israeli Supreme court in 2006 to force Israeli authorities to act against the expansion of the cemetery, which in their view will prevent “any possibility of future archaeological excavations to uncover ancient ruins on the site.” The State initially responded that the expansion of the cemetery is not a new phenomenon and that it has been taking place for years. The State’s conclusion was that this area is therefore not, de facto, a public area, and that the expansion of the cemetery does not cause damages to the antiquities of the site. It explained that given the sensitivity of the issue, and the risks of riots involved, buried corpses would not be displaced, existing graves would not be destroyed, and that new burials in the existing areas would not be prevented.  It stated that it would, however, act to prevent further expansion of the cemetery and would raise that issue with the Muslim Waqf.

The court, although it refused to issue an interim order, challenged parts of the State’s response in regard to the reluctance of the Israeli police to act in light of the risks of public disorder, and the refusal of the State to destroy empty graves or prevent burial in these new graves.

Subsequently the State changed its response, committing to act against the construction of new graves and committing to issue and enforce demolition orders against new graves, and promising that the police would assist the Jerusalem Municipality in enforcing these demolition orders and in the construction of a fence demarcating the limits of the cemetery. It also promised that Israeli police would assist the Jerusalem Municipality and the INPA in the prevention of burials, in accordance with considerations of public security. However, it was made clear that buried corpses would not be displaced and that existing graves and structures would not be demolished. The court accepted the revised State response [Full court decision in Hebrew is here].