Jerusalem municipality employees could not believe their eyes when they arrived one early morning, about two months ago, to the ancient Muslim cemetery in the capital's Independence Park.
A few days earlier, city officials in coordination with local Muslim leadership decided to fence the vicinity in order to make it easier to restore the site, which was neglected and rundown.
However, the employees were stunned to discover 250 new tombstones scattered among the old graves – some dating back to the Crusaders and ancient Muslim periods.
"The tombstones are identical in size and shape, and are easily distinguishable," said Dimitry, who works in the area.
Municipality employees removed 150 of the fictitious tombstones, most of which had nothing underneath them but weeds and dirt.
However, when representatives of the Islamic Movement learned that the tombstones were being removed, they appealed to the court and requested an injunction against their removal, claiming it was a sacred site.
Muslim battle for holy sites, land (Photo: Hagai Aharon)
The court rejected the appeal twice. At the third hearing, hundreds of Muslims showed up at the courtroom.
"The atmosphere was quite scary," one of the participants said. "Eventually, the judge suspended the removal of the tombstones until a final verdict is issued. We're still waiting for the verdict. This issue is as explosive as dynamite."
"Placing the tombstones there is part of the Islamic Movement's attempt to take over the state-owned land," said Israel Land Administration Spokeswoman Ortal Tzabar in an official statement.
The Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem's Independence Park is not the only bone of contention within the Green Line.
Islamic Movement activists are also demanding to reclaim the mosque in Caesarea – which is currently a restaurant; the mosque in Ashkelon – which has been converted into a museum; as well as additional mosques in Jerusalem, Tiberius, Kfar Hitim, and the Muslim cemetery in Ashkelon, in addition to thousands of other sites within the Green Line.
Group members travel through the country with the Al-Aqsa Company and locate cemeteries, mosques, and other ancient prayer sites. Some are on the verge of collapse, while others have been converted into schools, restaurants or gardens. They then write a detailed description of the site, take photos and map it. Houses or plots that once belonged to Arabs are not part of the struggle, which focuses only on sacred sites.
In many cases the group appeals to the High Court of Justice against what it calls "the plunder." Many of the appeals have been dragging on for years, and dozens of proceedings are still pending. "
For the time being, the Islamic Movement hasn’t won any of the proceedings," an Israel Land Administration official said. "But we fear that if they win possession over one of these sites, the road from there to claiming all abandoned property – which amounts to thousands of dunams – will be short."
In certain cases, the activists return to the site and simply take over the area; they fence it, paint the ruins and even reinstate prayer services in some of the old mosques.
"We found more than 3,500 sites that are sacred to Islam, and have been nationalized," said senior Northern Islamic Movement member Omar Ali Abu Sheikha.
"They should return these sites to us, and we'll take care of them properly," he noted, adding, "We don’t want to take over, just clean. They stop us, but we will continue. They imprison us, but we won't give up. We will continue to document, go to court, and won't let go."
"They shut down Al-Aqsa Association, claiming it was an illegal organization, so we established the Al-Aqsa Company. If they shut it down, we'll start a new one. Our strength is our faith, which belongs to us," Abu Sheikha said.
Officials at the Israel Land Administration are expressing growing concern over the spreading phenomenon of ownership battles over holy Islamic sites.
The tombstones that doubled over night in the Jerusalem cemetery is only one example of a wider trend.
Fake tombstones were also discovered in a Muslim cemetery near Moshav Ofer, after Land Administration officials claimed the northern Islamic Movement instructed its followers to restore the cemetery so that they can take over the land.
Another facet of the struggle focuses on slow annexation of land and setting facts on the ground. An example is the battle surrounding the beautiful Hassan Beck Mosque in Tel Aviv, located on land managed by the Administration.
The mosque, which stood abandoned for many years, was restored some 20 years ago. In the process, the builders exceeded the permitted height of the minaret. The municipality ordered it removed and issued a demolition order., prompting the minaret to be lowered slightly, while still exceeding the permitted height. Ultimately, officials just gave in and accepted it as is.
Israel's area expands over 22 million dunams (about 5.5 million acres). The Israel Land Administration administers 93% of the state's land, out of which some 15% – or about 3.3 million dunams (about 815,000 acres) – are under the management of the Development Authority for lands of absentee assets.
The administration of these lands has long been transferred from the custodian of absentee assets in the Treasury to the Land Administration. These lands include holy sites that are spread across thousands of dunams and include mosques, cemeteries and prayer houses that have been abandoned during the War of Independence or earlier.
A brochure published in 1995 by the Al-Aqsa Foundation stated that, "The properties of the Muslim waqf are numerous and varied. Research shows that they are spread over an area equal to a sixth of the size of the State of Israel. The injustice is painful and horrid, and no single sane person around the world, whether Christian or Jewish, would accept such an impingement on his holy sites."
'Muhammad Watch' - MK Sarsur (Photo: Yaron Brener)
Government consultan Dr. Yechiel Shavi says the Islamic Movement's struggle over holy sites had nothing to do with nostalgia. "It is part of an extensive campaign aimed at securing an Islamic-Palestinian foothold within the boundaries of the State of Israel...Their supreme goal is to take hold of the land, so that they can implement the right of return in the future. So far the governments of Israel have ignored this phenomenon and buried their heads in the sand."
"A few months ago I was asked to advise the Prime Minister's Office on the matter," Dr. Shavi said. "In my view, the State has to curb this nationalistic activity, executed under the guise of religion, and transfer these sites to the Antiquities Authority and declare them as historic sites. I recommended sealing some structures and declaring others as national parks, rather than religious sites."
The Israel Land Administration issued the following response: "As part of an Islamic Movement campaign to take over state-owned land, there is also a demand to regain possession of different sites. These are sacred sites that are no longer operational or usable, including abandoned cemeteries, madrassas, mosques and so on...the courts ruled that Administration will take care of these lands."
But MK Ibrahim Sarsur (Ra`am-Ta`al) is not giving up so quickly.
"This is our land. We want to protect the places that are sacred to us. We established an apparatus that follows the activity on the field. Volunteers pass by the sites and tell us what is going on. We call this apparatus "Muhammad Watch."