Occupied East Jerusalem - Muslim residents of Silwan and Jerusalem’s Old City are facing an ongoing battle to bury their dead in land which has served as the final resting place of their forbears for some 1400 years.
Bab Al-Rahma cemetery, an enclosed strip of soil and graves lying in the shadows of the southeastern wall of the Old City, is both a valuable artifact of Islamic history and also the modern burial ground used by tens of thousands of Muslims living in its vicinity. Islamic tradition allows graves to be reused every seven years. Until recently, the cemetery represented an unbroken connection between the residents of Silwan and their future descendants.
In recent years, locals have been facing more and more difficulties in burying their loved ones. In 1974, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) classified the land upon which the cemetery finds itself as a national park. The Jerusalem Walls National Park forms a ring around the Old City and includes the whole of Bab Al-Rahma and parts of Silwan. The cemetery’s inclusion within the park’s borders enabled the INPA to fence it in and restrict access and burial in the name of protecting ancient remains.
In 2006, an Israeli public interest group – The Public Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount – brought a suit against the State of Israel in the Supreme Court, arguing that it had failed to prevent Silwan residents from expanding the cemetery southward into a small area of land that lies adjacent to the section of the city’s walls nearest to the Haram al-Sharif (known to Jews as the Temple Mount). The Committee claimed that any expansion of Bab Al-Rahma should be prohibited on the grounds that such expansions would prevent “any possibility of future archaeological excavations to uncover ancient ruins on the site.”
Yonathan Mizrachi, an archaeologist as well as founder and executive director of the Emek Shaveh organisation, believes these archaeologically-based objections belong to a broader strategy.
“I think they had an opportunity and they just could convince the court that this area is too close to the antiquities,” Mizrachi told Palestine Monitor. “I think it’s been used as an excuse… I think there is a plan to prevent as much as they can a Muslim presence here.”
Responding to the Committee’s suit in 2006, the State suggested that expansion of the cemetery was not a new phenomenon, that the land was not in fact public (it is owned by the Waqf), and that preventing burials posed a risk of public disorder. Eventually, however, the State amended its positionand agreed to erect a new fence delineating the area that local residents could use for burials, while also committing the support of police to assist the INPA in preventing burials.
According to Jawad Siam, a resident of Silwan and director of the Wadi Hilweh Information Centre there, the policies and practices of the State are further compounded by the actions of radical Jewish groups vandalising the cemetery. These actions include the destruction of graves, the trashing of the cemetery, and the marking of religiously inciting graffiti on graves. Siam commented on the willful blindness of police and IDF personnel to these aggravations, suggesting a telling paradox in the situation: “When we go to bury, they see us. But when someone comes to destroy graves, they don’t see it.”
Siam told Palestine Monitor of further aggravations carried out by Israel and its agencies, including the State-authorised destruction of some graves and the planting of fake Jewish graves by the State (a claim which received acknowledgement in a draft decision of UNESCO’s Programme and External Relations Commission in 2015).
Mizrachi suggests that Israel’s policies and practices with regard to the cemetery might reflect a desire to transform Bab Al-Rahma from a “living” cemetery into a “dead” one, thus weakening Palestinians' ongoing connection to Jerusalem.
This desire is mirrored in other observable actions, including the demolition of Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem and the revocation of residency permits from Palestinian “permanent residents” of the city (as many as 14,500 such revocations occurred from 1967 to 2015).
“Slowly, slowly it [becomes] a historical monument, and not an active place,” said Mizrachi. Meanwhile, residents of Silwan have nowhere else to bury their dead.