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Grave matters: Israel's mistreatment of Islamic waqf

In the past, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced the desecration and vandalism of mosques and Muslim cemeteries. But the destruction of Muslim religious properties in Israel is, in fact, institutionalized and has a long and sometimes shocking history

Smashed headstone in the Sheikh Murad cemetery, located in South Tel Aviv (photo: Mya Guarnieri)

Jewish settlers torched a mosque near Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on December 15.

Earlier that week, Jewish rightists set fire to a mosque in Jerusalem. They scrawled graffiti on the walls reading “Mohammed is a pig,” and “A good Arab is a dead Arab.” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat condemned the desecration of the religious site. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did the same in October when a mosque was burned in the north of the country.

“The images are shocking and do not belong in the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

When Muslim and Christian cemeteries were vandalized that same month, Netanyahu spoke out again—remarking that Israel would not “tolerate vandalism, especially not the kind that would offend religious sensibilities.”

But such statements belie the Israeli government’s long-standing attitude towards Muslim religious properties or waqf. Meaning literally endowment, waqf and income from waqf serves a charitable purpose for one’s family or community. Under Ottoman rule, waqf properties were exempt from taxes.

Following the 1947-1948 nakba, which saw some 700,000 Palestinians driven from their homes, Israel used its newly created Absentees’ Property Law to seize, among other things, waqf.

In Jaffa, alone, “There was a huge amount of waqf,” says Sami Abu Shehadeh, head of Jaffa’s Popular Committee against Home Demolitions and a PhD candidate in history. “I’m talking about hundreds of shops; I’m talking about tens of thousands of dunams of land; I’m talking about all the mosques…and there were all the cemeteries, too.”

Jaffa was renamed Yafo in 1948 and was annexed by the Tel Aviv municipality between 1948 and 1949. Most of the mosques were closed and several later became Jewish-owned art galleries.

In 2007, attorney Hisham Shabaita, three other Palestinian residents of Jaffa, and a local human rights organization, filed a lawsuit against the state of Israel, the Custodian of Absentee Property, and the Jewish Israeli trustees responsible for administering Tel Aviv-Yafo’s waqf holdings. The plaintiffs didn’t ask for the land back. Nor did they request compensation. They simply wanted to know what had happened to the properties, what their estimated earnings were, and where the money was going or had gone.

The court’s response? The information cannot be released because it apparently would embarrass the state, harming its reputation in the international community. The plaintiffs have filed an appeal and the case is expected to reach the Israeli Supreme Court.

But it’s not hard to guess what happened to the waqf properties, in part because the state admitted that all of the land had been sold. There are other clues: in the 1950s alone, the state demolished 1200 mosques. Later, the Hilton hotel, which stands in an area now known as north Tel Aviv, was built on a Muslim cemetery. Bodies were unearthed and relocated, stacked upon each other in a tiny corner of what was once a large graveyard.

Another Muslim cemetery became a parking lot for Tel Aviv University.

There are also the forgotten corners, properties the state appropriated and then neglected. The Sheikh Murad cemetery, which dates back to at least the 1800s, stands between the South Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Shapira and Kiryat Shalom. Its headstones were smashed by vandals years ago. Bits of marble have been pried off the graves, presumably for use or sale.

Locals have dumped garbage on the grounds and, the last time I checked in on the cemetery—not long after Muslim and Christian graves were vandalized in Yafo—two men were shooting heroin under the shade of a pomegranate tree. Fruit rotted on the ground.

Abu Shehadeh says that the local Islamic committee is building a fence around the cemetery in hopes of protecting it from further misuse. He adds that only Palestinian collaborators with Israel, who are often relocated to South Tel Aviv, have been buried in the graveyard since 1948.

The Jewish neighborhoods Kiryat Shalom and Kfar Shalem both stand on the land of the Palestinian village Salame, which was established before the 1596 Ottoman census. According to Abu Shehadeh, a number of Muslim cemeteries were destroyed to make way to house the country’s new occupants.

And then there’s Jerusalem.

With the approval of the Jerusalem municipality, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is building a “Museum of Tolerance” on a Muslim graveyard. Excavations are taking place at the site, which has served as a been a parking lot for several decades now, and skeletons are being exhumed so that the Los Angeles-headquartered, “global Jewish human rights” organization can teach tourists a thing or two about co-existence.

Sergio Yahni of the Alternative Information Center, an Israeli-Palestinian non-governmental organization, explained that much of Jewish West Jerusalem is built on waqf.

“One of the most striking demolitions [on land designated as waqf,” he continues, “was made [in the Old City] during the 1967 war. [Israeli forces] didn’t take care [to see] if people were out of the houses…[in some cases] they brought the buildings down on people.”

Several Palestinians who disappeared from the Old City during the war were believed to be killed during the demolitions.

This occurred in the area adjacent to the Al Aqsa Mosque. Some eighty percent of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter is built on waqf.

Jewish Israeli leaders and journalists have expressed alarm at the recent rash of vandalism and arson. In light of the fact that the government itself has perpetrated such violence against Muslim properties for over 60 years, the surprise is misplaced, at best. At worst, it is a disingenuous attempt to relieve the state of its responsibility by pointing the finger at “extremists.”

This article was originally published in Al Akhbar.

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    1. Mati

      “Some eighty percent of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter is built on waqf.” This sentence, in the context of the story in which it appears, seems to imply that foreign Jewish settlers actually came and took over the Jewish Quarter of the Old City as part of this post-1948 process of destruction that you are describing.

      This rather odd statement seems to delegitimize, across broad historic periods, even Jewish residence – irrespective of the separate issue of Jewish or Israeli sovereignty or administrative authority – in Jerusalem.

      This despite the fact that there has been a Jewish residential presence in this section of the city for thousands of years.

      I suspect those Palestinian Jews with historic family roots in Jerusalem dating back hundreds or thousands of years might be surprised to learn from this story of their implied association with the process of destruction and delegitimization of the Palestinian Muslim and Christian presence which did in fact take place in the city starting in 1948.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben Israel

      Of course, the Arabs tore down and desecrated most if not all of the synagogue and Jewish cemeteries they go their hands on after the 1948 war. Most famous was taking the the tombstones from the ancient Mt of Olives cemetery and using them for latrines, the desecreation of the Torah scrolls from the 50+ synagogues and yeshivot destroyed in the Jewish Quarter of the Old city and in Hevron, not to mention the destruction and defiling of the building themselves, just like we saw more recently with the synagogues of Gush Katif.
      So as they say here in Israel TEKU! A tie. I’ll start worrying about their waqf when they start worrying about what they did to Jewish stuff.

      Reply to Comment
    3. mya guarnieri

      Ben Israel, Thanks for reading. But, as usual, I feel like your topic is off-topic. The post is about Israel’s treatment of waqf and the hypocrisy of leaders’ reactions to recent incidents of vandalism and arson. This post is not about Arab treatment of Jewish properties. Do you have anything to say about Israel’s treatment of waqf?

      Mati, I’m sure you’re aware that the continual Jewish residence you’re speaking of constituted a small minority.


      Reply to Comment
    4. mya guarnieri


      Here’s a number for you: the Old City’s Jewish Quarter is, today, 4 times it’s pre-1948 size.

      That’s not to say that there weren’t Jews in Jerusalem before 48. It’s to say that the demographics and the use of the land was totally different.


      Reply to Comment
    5. Carl

      Mya I’m with you on those comments. Ben, I don’t hold you up as a nutcase rightwinger; though I agree with few of your views, you do usually argue for them logically and lucidly. ‘They did it first’ isn’t only off topic but it’s below par for yourself and doesn’t move the debate on.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben Israel

      Many, if not most of the articles posted at 972 show how Israel is a terrible country that stomps on human rights, is racist, is violent, etc, etc. These are posted on a Left-wing, “progressive” web site designed for a Leftist, “progressive” audience in order, conciously or not, to show Israel is not a fit country for the civilized world, at lease as the Leftist, “progressive” world defines civilization.
      Not all articles are like that, some show a certain degree of balance, but this one doesn’t. My point is that the Arabs did all the things Israel is accused of doing, even worse, (although since Israel won the war, it had more Islamic “holy sites” fall into its hands). In fact, I am sure that during the partition of India, Muslims and Hindus did the same, also during the population transfer between Greece and Turkey did the same . Israel is NO DIFFERENT than anyone else in the same situation. That is why this article is unfair and misleading. I want to point this out.

      Reply to Comment
    7. mya guarnieri

      Ben Israel,
      You are again off-topic.
      But I might remind you of some counter examples to your argument that the “Arabs did all the things Israel is accused of doing”:
      There are two synagogues in Cairo that the Egyptian government has taken care to preserve and that are under heavy police guard. (I’ve seen them both and entered one).
      The Magen Abraham synagogue in Beirut which was damaged during the Civil War was recently restored with permission of the Lebanese government and (gasp!) Hezbollah.
      These might not be the exception rule rather than the rule. However, how many mosques can you name that Israel has preserved? The state doesn’t even recognize Muslim sites of worship:
      My article is not “unfair and misleading.”
      In the future, please keep your comments on topic or I will not allow them to appear in the discussion.

      Reply to Comment
    8. mya guarnieri

      And, I might point out the obvious, Ben Israel… even if Israel is “no different” than anyone else, that doesn’t excuse anything. Israel is still accountable for its actions.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Mitchell Cohen

      Mya, with all due respect, I am not so impressed that a country restores/maintains a couple of synagogues. How they treat their Jews (the negligible amount that are left in these countries) is what interests me.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ben Israel: Your last two comments have both been so far off topic I have deleted them.

      If you want to stay on topic, you are welcome to participate in the conversation.

      If not, I won’t allow you to clutter the thread.


      Reply to Comment
    11. Woody

      @Ben: “My neighbor beats his wife, so why shouldn’t I do it too?” = not a winning argument.

      I would also suggest if you’re going to go back to a few decades pre-1948, why not go all the way back to 0 A.D. and we can see there has been nastiness by every group who took over Jerusalem – blood flowing through the streets by Crusader murder is nothing compared to waqf abuse. However, the point is we want to live differently now as humans. As a result the “look what they did” argument is not very appealing to most people because they wish for more from humans and from this state. If you think striving for more from Israel by offering criticism is meant to “show how terrible Israel is” – please deal with your insecurities so we don’t nose dive into a failed state here.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Aaron Allen

      An association of the three monotheistic relig-
      ions shud meet to better manage the religious
      sites upon or very near Mt. Moriah: To begin with, each faith’s places of assembly/worship
      shud be left to them only and their services and activities shud be placed upon a master schedule to minimize crowds, noise, and distraction. After each faith is comfortable
      with the others being allowed to visit or to
      worship, they shud be invited and welcomed–the congregation vs. congregation conflict
      now over?..Adequate access to all sites shud
      be engineered to prevent wandering intruders. Appropriate clothing shud be worn or borrowed from securityfolk onsite…Aaron Allen…

      Reply to Comment