Israeli court freezes work at Jaffa building site on abandoned Muslim cemetery

Two members of Tel Aviv city council quit the ruling municipal coalition and court orders temporary freeze as tempers stay hot over construction at abandoned Muslim cemetery.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

A Tel Aviv court froze construction and two members of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa city council quit in protest over the two-year saga of the city’s handling of a project to renovate the site of an abandoned Muslim cemetery, Ynet reported Thursday.

Council members Amir Badran and Moria Shlomot of the three-member We Are the City Party told Mayor Ron Huldai they are quitting his coalition on the 31-member council in protest of the municipality’s conduct in the crisis in Jaffa cemetery.

We Are the City leader Assaf Harel, who serves as deputy mayor and in charge of construction and infrastructure, will remain in his post and has not commented on the situation.

After several days of protests, some of them violent, a Tel Aviv court issued a stop-work order Wednesday in response to a petition from the Jaffa Islamic Council against the municipality, claiming its building permit was not valid.

Although it was abandoned over 100 years ago, one corner of the land on which the cemetery is located had an Ottoman-era one-story home that was being used as a homeless shelter. During work in 2018 on a city hall project to replace the old house with a modern building on the same spot, workers discovered the bones of at least 30 people who appear to have been buried in the structure.

When the bones were discovered, Jaffa residents, including representatives of the Islamic Movement in Israel, set up signs saying “Cemetery – sacred grounds” and poured concrete over the graves, creating tombstones. After two years of protracted arguing, the city decided to move ahead with the construction project.

Mayor Ron Huldai justified the continued work in a Channel 12 interview, saying it is “impossible in Jaffa to look and not find” ancient burial sites or other connections that would offend somebody.

In response, local residents and supporters from outside the city, including some radical Islamic leaders, protested the continuation of work and rioting broke out that at one point led to the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem issuing a travel warning for Americans to avoid the Jaffa area, located at the south end of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality.

Jaffa has been the site of several violent protests against desecration of burial sites. In 2010, police reinforcements had to be brought in to quell rioting by Jewish ultra-orthodox protesters angered by a luxury development project being built on suspected graves, during which protesters put a curse on the developers.

The issue of construction unearthing human remains has always been a sensitive issue in Israel, with highways being rerouted or raised above ground so as not to disturb the bones. Ultra-orthodox Jews have violently protested over the years at construction sites around the country, including Jerusalem, Tiberias, Beit Shemesh and Ashkelon.

The Jaffa Muslims also got support earlier this week from Deputy Interior Minister Yoav Bentzur of the Jewish religious Shas Party, who sent a letter to Huldai with “an urgent request to prevent the desecration of the Muslim cemetery in Jaffa.”

“The preservation of the dead is an important principle in our religion and we are committed to maintaining the cemeteries of all religions,” Ben Tzur said.